It's been a tough few months for McDonald's Happy Meals.
In April, Santa Clara County in California banned toys in unhealthy restaurant meals, effective this month. Also in April, a Boston-based activist group, Corporate Accountability International, called on McDonald's to retire Ronald McDonald from marketing unhealthy fast food to children.
Then in June, the advocacy group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, threatened to sue McDonald's if it didn't stop using toys to lure children into ordering Happy Meals. McDonald's Chief Executive Officer Jim Skinner responded in defense by saying that the public does not support such a lawsuit, as evident by its busy restaurants and according to customer polls. In addition, he wrote, "Parents, in particular, strongly believe they have the right and responsibility to decide what's best for their children, not CSPI." Last week, CSPI's executive director Michael Jacobson told me in an email interview that McDonald's would not negotiate with CSPI, so they are preparing to file a lawsuit.
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In an article about the feud in the L.A. Times, EatingWell Advisor Marion Nestle, an author and nutrition professor at New York University, was quoted as saying that "the chain's tactics represent a deliberate attempt to undermine parental responsibility. …If Happy Meals didn't contain toys, kids wouldn't nag their parents for them, and McDonald's wouldn't sell as many."
But not everyone agrees that Happy Meals are totally evil.
I recently interviewed British celebrity chef and bestselling cookbook author Jamie Oliver. Oliver grabbed America's attention this past spring when he tackled school lunches and the eating habits of residents of America's "unhealthiest" city, Huntington, West Virginia, on his Emmy-nominated ABC show Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. When it comes to marketing to children, Oliver does advocate making it illegal to target kids with junk food and soda advertising.
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But when it comes to food, Oliver, a father of three girls under the age of nine, said his philosophy is not to act as "the food police," but to encourage his kids to try many different foods and hope they'll make better choices.
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I asked Oliver, if he were to make over the McDonald's Happy Meal, what would it look like?
His reply: "I don't know what a Jamie Oliver Happy Meal would have in it, but to be honest I don't think Happy Meals are really the problem. People absolutely love them, and I'm not interested in changing or taking away anybody's favorite treat. What really needs a makeover is the way we think about food so we naturally start to make better choices. Then Happy Meals are seen the right way: as something to be enjoyed every once in a while rather than every day."
Related Link: 9 Simple Tips to Get Your Kids to Eat Healthier
Read more from our interview with Jamie Oliver, in which he reveals the three laws he'd pass to help curb obesity, in the September/October issue of EatingWell magazine on newsstands later this month.
When I was growing up, Happy Meals were an occasional treat, not something my parents let me eat regularly. I wouldn't eat one now, but it sure was special at the time. What do you think, are Happy Meals a problem? Share your opinion in the comments section below.
By Michelle Edelbaum
Michelle is the associate editor of interactive for EatingWell Media Group. She puts her background in journalism to work online at EatingWell.com and in each issue of EatingWell magazine, authoring The Fresh Interview with interesting people in the world of food and health.
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