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.

13 thoughts on “Passing the buck? Parental responsibility vs. fast food giants

  1. God bless you!!
    I could not agree more. So many of the issues that trouble our society, and our youth specifically, could be mitigated is only parents would do their job and be parents. One of the most powerful tools of good parenting is a single word; “No”.

  2. As a parent I agree that it is my responsibility to raise my children healthfully. However, there are many external forces today that erode my ability and yours to control our kids.
    Massive marketing campaigns which include TV and movie commercials, merchandising tie-ins, and yes, Happy Meals, are making it very hard to say “No”.
    The government has the right and the moral responsibility to protect us from what is ultimately fattening up our kids and killing us all.
    They’ve done it before with trans-fat labeling which caused the industry to change, and they can do it again.

    1. I’m sorry Fooducate. I do not think that it is the governments place to protect us from what is ‘ultimately fattening up our kids and killing us all’. We do not need them to be a parent to our children – we should be doing the protecting and parenting of our own children. We do not need the government telling us what we can and cannot feed our children. We as parents should be able to make those decisions on our own. 
      I agree with Dr. McCarthy, it is not the toy in the happy meals that are making our kids fat. It is time to take responsibility for ourselves and our families and to stop passing the buck onto everyone else. 
      It is not easy, but no one said it would be. 

  3. Great post on an important topic! I think people have to take responsibility for the choices they make and not lay the blame on someone else. Now, how do we get that to happen?

  4. Great point of view!

    Also – McDonalds will give you the option of just buying the toy (less than $1) – you can buy something other than a happy meal for your child *and* they can still get the toy. We don’t do fast food ground meat or mcnuggets in our family, and I don’t have a problem saying “no” to foods!

    There are a lot of marketing messages that influence our kids. So far we’ve been able to stay away from TV stations that heavily promote junk food and toys to kids. In Boston we have access to 3 PBS stations on TV, and if you have cable with On Demand or a DVD player you can further control the exposure to ads. (Yes, PBS still has ads, but not as excessive as other stations!)

  5. I agree with you on many points, but I think the toys DO serve as a motivator for kids to persuade their parents to take them to fast food restaurants. I know they were for me when I was a kid! It’s easy to say that parents need to learn to say “no,” which they do, but I still think that anything we as society can do to make it easier is an important and worthwhile step. If you read the book Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein, you’ll get a good argument for little changes that can change behavior without putting the onus on the individual. As much as we’d like to believe we are 100% in control of our actions, we really are very irrational and prone to making poor choices in the face of temptation. Your suggestions for increasing access to healthy foods is right on the money. I think this needs to be the focus of our anti-obesity efforts (along with increasing physical activity).

    1. Maureen, I am sorry but being prone to poor choices is a cop out.  People need to have a sense of personal accountability and a sense of pride in that ability.  She mentioned that the toys DO serve as a motivator, in fact, she further mentioned that the toy often distracts her four year old from finishing his meal.  We do not need anyone making decisions for us.  If parents are too weak to say no to little bobby, then the suffer the consequences.  

  6. Kelly and Fooducate are right that toys and the media make it harder for parents to say no. I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t be working to change marketing messages–and I think the government can absolutely help. Putting calorie counts on menus, for example, does appear to affect the choices many people make!

    But parents shouldn’t underestimate the power they have to affect the health and future of their children. And if we are going to put energy into drafting legislation, we should make sure that it is the most effective legislation possible.

  7. Late to this discussion as I am, one solution is to involve children in the food making process at home from a very young age. Toddlers love to help, even if it’s only tearing the lettuce leaves or counting the carrot slices. Children will eat what they help prepare. Everyone pitching makes less work for one person, and builds community as does sitting down to a meal together.

    Dinner table discussions can center around how companies offer toys because their food isn’t very good for you. Children can grow up learning how to feed themselves and not be pawns to clever marketing. It just takes the desire to raise them that way.

  8. BRAVO! I happened across your article while writing a paper on this very issue. I believe alot of the poor diet choices are lack of information. Children are told it is ‘Bad” for them, but not why it is bad for them. A perfect example was taking the soda machines from local schools here. Now the activity groups sale soda to the students instead of the teens buying it from the machine. Did it really matter how many parents complained about the machines? The end result is they are still drinking the soda. I feel this will have the same ending. Even if the toy is taken out, kids are still going to want chicken nuggets and the families that eat there every week for the convenience that it offers will continue to do so. I am not suggesting it is a hopeless cause, I am simply stating until people understand why what they eat (and how much) is so important there will be obesiety.

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