Passing the buck? Parental responsibility vs. fast food giants

Claire McCarthyA county in California is set to ban toys in Happy Meals (or any other high-calorie fast food) this summer. They say that the toys lure the children in to the restaurants and are contributing to childhood obesity.

I hope they don’t do anything like that around here. I like Happy Meals just the way they are. And I’m tired of people blaming McDonald’s for obesity. Nobody is forcing anyone to go to McDonald’s, let alone to Super Size once they get there. People can choose smaller burgers and fries, or salads with low-fat dressing or bottled water instead of a milkshake. One of the things I like about Happy Meals is that they have the smallest servings available—and they offer apple slices instead of French fries. Playing with the toy often distracts my 4 year old from finishing the food. For some little ones the toy is the point instead of the food—which, in a fast food restaurant, seems to me like a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that fast food is healthy, and I’m not advocating that people eat it ever, let alone frequently (I take my family once in a blue moon). But the people who want toys out of high-calorie fast food are missing the point.

There’s a real issue of personal responsibility here. Toys don’t drive kids to restaurants or pay for the food—grownups do. Kids may ask for the toys—they may even beg or whine—but grownups can say no. And grownups are going to have to start saying no to a whole lot more than fast food if we want kids to be thinner and healthier. They are going to have to start saying no to sugared beverages, junk food, sweets and seconds at dinner. They are going to have to take a stand about vegetables, exercise and screen time. When we start blaming the toy, we dodge looking at the real culprits: ourselves.

We also miss the chance to look at the other issues this brings up. McDonald’s restaurants are cheap—you can feed a whole family for very little money. For many working families, some working two or more low-paying jobs, McDonald’s is a quick, easy and economical way to get children fed (these restaurants are very plentiful, too—you can find one essentially anywhere). Many working parents often don’t have the time to cook, or the money to pay for fresh vegetables and other healthy ingredients. It’s a social justice issue.

mcdonaldsAnd there are cultural issues, too.  Even among those who can afford to pay, the culture of cooking a family meal is vanishing; more and more families are eating pre-prepared, processed foods in front of the television. When you’re mostly microwaving, McDonald’s food seems downright fresh.

So let’s stop looking for scapegoats, and instead start looking for real solutions.  For example:

  • Let’s work with fast food restaurants to increase the number of healthy choices they offer, and to decrease serving sizes.
  • We need to find other ways to increase the availability of inexpensive, healthy food choices, such as by having more inner-city farmer’s markets, or restaurants that offer inexpensive healthy take-out meals for families.
  • We should be teaching cooking in schools (hurrah for home ec!), and offering classes on preparing simple, healthy family meals at community centers and other places where people gather.
  • Supermarkets could have nutritional information next to foods, to help people make better choices.  They could have healthy, easy recipes around the store as well, to help families see that cooking is possible.
  • We need to increase the availability of safe, economical exercise options for children and their families.
  • Families need to understand the importance of limiting screen time—and getting their kids (actually, everyone) moving!

Let’s not fight over toys.  Let’s fight for our children’s future instead.