I have pretty mixed feelings about the San Francisco ban on Happy Meal toys. Putting a toy in a meal is a cheap advertising ploy, and little kids are really sensitive to that sort of stuff. So, I’m all for banning advertising that manipulates children.
My problem is that the law sets calorie, fat, and sodium guidelines for meals within which it’s okay to manipulate children. That is, if the nutrition data for the happy meal was tweaked a bit, it could still be offered. Or if another chain wanted to offer a lower calorie kids’ meal, they could.
The reasons this bothers me are many. First and foremost, kids should not be counting calories, parents should not be counting calories for their kids, children are growing and need energy and need to actually learn to listen to their internal hunger cues. I also don’t like the reduction of “healthy” to “low-calorie.” Health is complex and multifaceted. For a kid going through a growth spurt, a Happy Meal might actually be better than a salad and a fruit cup, because they need the calories. Are there better ways to get the calories? Sure. But in the situation where time is really limited and dinner comes from the drive-through, the lowest-calorie option is not the one and only always right answer. Or how about a kid who had tonsil surgery or teeth pulled and it hurts to eat, but you need to get some calories into them somehow. Suddenly a big thick chocolate milkshake looks like a fantastic idea. Point being, there’s way more to health than calories, and the oversimplification is BS.
Secondly, it’s the parent’s place to decide what their food priorities are for their kids. I know people who really like the ban because it cuts down on the amount of begging they’ll have to withstand–at least until McDonald’s tweaks the Happy Meal a bit. And, since their issue with McDonald’s is corn products and overprocessing and HFCS, a 500-calorie Happy Meal isn’t going to be any higher on their list of things they want their kids to have. But those priorities aren’t everybody’s priorities, and I think the government oversteps when it says “these are the meals that are okay to market to children, and these are the ones that aren’t.” How about just “don’t market to children”?
Third, anything that feeds into our culture’s diet mentality bugs me. Kids will be aware when Happy Meals go away, don’t think they won’t. And they’ll know that it’s because of “too many calories” because calories are bad for you and you shouldn’t eat them. (Yes, this is exactly how the diet message sounds to a six-year-old.)
Finally, this leaves a big fat loophole for manipulative advertising of low-calorie (not necessarily the same as healthy) meals to kids. I can easily envision a Skinny Princess meal with a salad, a Diet Coke, one of the 80-calorie Disney Princess snack packs (which should not exist!) and a cute pink toy, marketed to little girls. This would meet those standards as “healthy” without giving a kid the energy they need, having all the HFCS and non-organic stuff that some people are concerned over, oh and teaching them to diet at the age of five.
For more on this topic, there’s some really good discussion going on over at the Family Feeding Dynamics blog.