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Fast Food Kids' Meals
Just as in the United States, kids in Australia eat a lot of fast food - one recent study estimates that 25% of school children in Australia eat fast food at least once a week, with that number increasing to 43% in adolescents. That's actually lower than in the United States, where about 30% of high school age kids eat fast food more than three times a week.

Don't buy the kids' menu hype
The Kids LiveWell program was started in 2011 by the National Restaurant Association to "provide... parents and children with a growing selection of healthful menu options when dining out." The 19 initially participating restaurant chains, which at its start included Denny's, Burger King, and Outback Steakhouse, agreed to offer a selection of children's items that meet the following criteria:

The Quality of Food Advertised to Children
If you have kids, chances are they watch Nickelodeon: the cable channel's programs account for 47 out of the 50 top children's shows on television today. Those programs reach into movies, books, magazines, and websites, while the characters in those programs are used to market food products and are made into collectible toys.


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The power of movie tie-ins

a fast food burger and fries from a familiar brand

According to Time magazine, the first McDonald's Happy Meal, a fast food meal marketed specifically to children, was introduced nationally in 1979. Each Happy Meal included a toy, which at first were McDonald's-themed, then Disney-themed toys were introduced in the late 1980's. One 2016 report on Happy Meal toys from an industry research firm estimates that McDonald's sells 3.2 million Happy Meals every day.

That's not just a lot of toys, that's a lot of fast food. A lot of salt, a lot of fat, a lot of junk.

There's been some effort in the fast food realm to improve the quality of the meals marketed to children. In Australia some companies, including McDonald's, have signed voluntary pledges to improve their offerings, but in practice they have actually made few changes to their meals. Similarly, in the United States the (again, voluntary) Kids LiveWell program led to small cuts in the number of calories in the entrees marketed to children in the first two years - but the number of calories in side items increased. McDonald's, notably, is not a member of the Kids LiveWell program, although they have made some effort to improve the quality of their children's meals by offering apple slices, yogurt, and milk or juice with its Happy Meals.

Those Happy Meal toys are a big draw for kids, however, and the fast food companies know it. The focus on regulating the amount and type of food marketing directed toward children has included efforts to unlink toys from fast food: in 2011 a San Francisco ordinance required that children's meals sold at restaurants meet specific nutritional criteria if a free giveaway (such as a toy) was offered with the meal. (The response? Some restaurants just started selling the toys separately.)

The toys' popularity would suggest that offering the toys with healthier meals might induce kids to choose the healthier meals. A team of researchers in Australia decided to take a closer look at the lure of Happy Meal toys: which was stronger - the desire for the toys or the food itself? (Appetite 2017;117:342-350)

The authors recruited over 900 kids between 5 and 9 years old (with the consent of the children's parents, of course) from local grammar schools to participate in their study, conducted online and utilizing McDonald's Happy Meals because of their familiarity to the children. Each child was shown the trailer for a recent children's movie (in this case, How to Train Your Dragon 2), followed by a brief ad. Then the child was shown a set of pictures of four different types of Happy Meals and asked to choose which meal they would want to have. Each child was randomly assigned to one of four possible conditions:

The control condition (Condition A): the movie trailer was followed by an advertisement for the local zoo. Then 2 healthier Happy Meals and two less-healthy Happy Meals, none shown with an accompanying toy, were displayed in random order. (The children were not told whether the meals were healthy or not.)
Condition B: the movie trailer was followed by a McDonald's ad for the movie's associated Happy Meal and toy. Then all four of the Happy Meals, whether they were healthy or unhealthy, were depicted as including a toy.
Condition C: the movie trailer was followed by the McDonald's ad, then only the unhealthy meals were depicted as including the toy.
Condition D: the movie trailer was again followed by the McDonald's ad, but only the healthy meals were depicted as including the toy.

As you might expect, when a toy was not involved at all (Condition A), the children overwhelmingly (~80%) said that they would prefer eating the unhealthier meals. When toys were offered with all of the meals (Condition B), slightly more children chose the healthier meals (~20% vs. ~15%) than the unhealthy ones, but they still strongly preferred the unhealthy meals.

When the unhealthy meals were the only meals that came with the toy (Condition C), the children chose the unhealthy meals at about the same rate as when no toys were offered (meaning some children actually chose to not have the toy - interesting!). When the healthy meals were the only meals offered with a toy (Condition D), however, the percentage of children choosing the healthy meals jumped to around 40%, with 60% of the kids forgoing the toy in order to choose the less-healthy meal.

What this means for you

The authors conclude that these results strengthen the argument that toy premiums should only be linked to children's meals that meet certain nutritional criteria. Certainly that is one strategy, and a fairly simple one given children's preference for sweet and salty foods. I would contend that improving the quality of all fast food meals marketed to children would be a better long-term strategy, but of course the best short-term strategy for parents is to limit the amount of fast food you feed your children as much as you can, and if you do end up eating in a fast food joint, use the nutrition information provided to make the healthiest choices for your child, regardless of whether there's a toy involved.

First posted: August 23, 2017