California County Bans Happy Meal Toys

Will taking toys away decrease childhood obesity?

Officials in Santa Clara want to put an end to McDonald’s Happy Meal toys. No, it’s not because of their carbon footprint or for safety reasons (of the obvious kind, anyway). To put it bluntly, the toys are making kids fat. With childhood obesity on the rise, officials believe these kinds of toys are enticing kids to eat the fattening food that is served alongside them. According to the county’s Board of Supervisors member Ken Yeager, the ordinance “prevents restaurants from preying on children’s love of toys" and “breaks the link between unhealthy food and prizes.”

Santa Clara restaurants will be allowed to include toys and other promotions with their kiddy meals so long as those dishes meet nutritional guidelines approved this past week by the Board of Supervisors.

The measure, which was passed by a three-to-two margin, does not have unanimous support. I am among the conflicted.

As a move to get restaurants to comply with nutritional standards, then sure, I’m all for pressuring the McDonald's of the world to clean up their menus. But fast-food restaurants do offer healthier options, which are almost always their most unpopular items. However, from the Board Supervisors’ statements, I get the sense that officials really think this will make a difference in kids’ eating preferences. As a ploy to make children less apt to want a Happy Meal, it all just seems a little misguided.

An unhealthy kids' meal is still an unhealthy kids' meal, regardless of whether there’s a toy inside. Plastic doodad or not, kids are still going to ask for Happy Meals, because they are the only kiddy meal on the menu. Besides, what’s the alternative? Ordering your kid a Big Mac Value Meal? Happy Meals are among the least nutritionally offensive options under the Golden Arches. Parents can, after all, ask for apple slices instead of fries, and milk instead of soda. This shouldn’t be a newsflash to anyone, but moms and dads are the ones with the buying power here—and I don’t think they’re all that influenced by what kind of toy is or isn’t inside.

Unless you’re one of the few people who only order salads and grilled chicken at fast-food chains, it’s safe to say that the moment you step into one of these restaurants, you’re guaranteeing that your child is going to be eating something that does not conform to nutritional guidelines.

So here’s my idea: why don’t we ban Happy Meals instead of the shiny little bauble that’s inside of them? If New York City can successfully nix trans fat from restaurant menus, something tells me we could get legislation passed that prevents restaurants from serving unhealthy kids' meals in the first place.

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