Parenting

McDonald's Happy Meals -- 30 Years of Making Kids Fatter

| by Dr Gwenn

It’s always a bit of a landmark when something like the Happy Meal reaches a big milestone in years. This week marks it’s 30th anniversary of being introduced into our lives. That’s a lot of years, a lot of meals and a lot of small cute toys!

A meal in a box…who would have thought! I do remember when they first came out and parents with little kids flocked to them like flies to sticky paper. However, coming in at 600 calories for an average meal, packed a huge punch on the typical child’s health and waist band. Indeed, as noted by ABC News, childhood obesity has increased by 4x over the last 3 decades moving from only 4% the child population to 17%!!

The McDonald’s rep interviewed by ABC News mentioned that the “most popular” Happy Meal, the chicken nuggets with apples, is now only 360 calories. That is a great decrease by just shy of 50%.

Let’s not celebrate yet. What we need to consider is what proportion of a daily calorie amount this mean eats up.

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Calorie amounts vary by age and gender. Here’s how it breaks down with recent recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • Toddlers: 1000 calories a day
  • 4-8 yr old girls: 1200 calories a day
  • 4-8 yr old boys:1400 calories a day
  • 9-13 yr old girls: 1600 calories a day
  • 9-13 yr old boys: 1800 calories a day
  • 14-18 yr old girls: 1800 calories a day
  • 14-18 yr old boys: 2000 calories a day

Now, let’s look at some of the most popular Happy Meal calorie counts:

  • Chicken nugget meal with Apple dippers & Apple Juice: 380 cals
  • Chicken nugget meal with fries, 1% chocolate milk: 580 cals
  • Hamburger meal with apple dippers, white milk: 460 cals
  • Hamburger meal with fries, chocolate milk: 650 cals
  • Cheeseburger meal with apple dippers, white milk:500 cals
  • Cheeseburger meal with fries, chocolate milk: 700 cals

Finally, what percentage of a child’s daily calorie count will each of these meals snatch up for a toddler at 1000 calories a day?

  • Chicken nugget meal with Apple dippers & Apple Juice: 38% Chicken nugget meal with fries, 1% chocolate milk: 58%
  • Hamburger meal with apple dippers, white milk: 46%
  • Hamburger meal with fries, chocolate milk: 65%
  • Cheeseburger meal with apple dippers, white milk:50%
  • Cheeseburger meal with fries, chocolate milk: 70%

What about if the child is a 5 year old girl requiring only 1200 cals/day?

  • Chicken nugget meal with Apple dippers & Apple Juice: 32%
  • Chicken nugget meal with fries, 1% chocolate milk: 48%
  • Hamburger meal with apple dippers, white milk: 38%
  • Hamburger meal with fries, chocolate milk: 54%
  • Cheeseburger meal with apple dippers, white milk:42%
  • Cheeseburger meal with fries, chocolate milk: 58%

    The kicker here is that if we run these numbers for the teens, the percentages wouldn’t be quite as bad but teens go for the bigger meals which put them right back into these ranges in the end! (A Quarter Pounder alone is 400 calories! Check this list out for more details.)

    Fast food such as Happy Meals is one of the big players in obesity in general for all populations. There are times we all have to grab and go because of work, travel and circumstances beyond our control. The key to not have the loaded calories make too much of a long term dent is to have a fast food plan and to work on being more healthy over all. Here are my suggestions:

    1. Pick small portions and healthy alternatives at fast food places, and teach our children to do so as well. When in doubt, down size and pass on the fries or split them.
    2. Eat healthy in general so the fast food day is the exception, not the rule.
    3. Be as active as possible daily so your body and your children’s bodies have a way to burn the added calories.

    McDonald’s job is to sell food and lure you and your kids’ through the doors. Your job is to keep your kids healthy and teach them how to be healthy life long. Have a Happy Meal once in a while…but do so thoughtfully and don’t delude yourself that these meals are anything close to healthy. The new packaging and food choices are just new hype for the same old unhealthy song.