New York Welcomes the Unhappy Meal

Julie Gunlock

4/11/2011 1:51:00 PM - Julie Gunlock

Parents have many responsibilities. Getting the kids up and ready for school, making sure they do their homework and practice proper manners. Parents manage carpools, play-dates and sleepovers; they sooth scraped knees, bruised heads and injured feelings. But perhaps the most basic thing a parent does is feed their children. Feeding a child means more than just spooning mashed carrots into a baby’s mouth or preparing a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a toddler. It requires a firm constitution when children demand a meal mom and dad might not consider healthy.

Most parents deal with these demands by simply saying “no” to the pestering child, but apparently this is a feat too difficult for parents -- at least according to one New York City council member.

Taking a page from the San Francisco ban on toys in McDonalds’ Happy Meals, New York City Councilman Leroy Comrie just announced his plan to introduce a bill to ban fast food restaurants from using these “predatory marketing techniques” unless they meet “certain satisfactory nutritional requirements.”

Of course, Comrie is just the latest public official to jump on the anti-Happy Meal bandwagon. San Francisco passed its own ban last year despite there being no evidence that these bans result in children and parents making healthier food decisions. And there’s the rub: What seems to escape Comrie and the rest of the food nannies is that something else comes with these toys—yummy food that kids love. French fries, chicken nuggets, hamburgers--these items taste good to kids (and adults). Kids will still clamor for these appealing items, even if a toy isn’t included.

Fast food restaurants are already voluntarily altering their menus so that customers have healthier choices. McDonalds now offers apple slices, yogurt and oatmeal on their menu. At Burger King, customers can order a veggie burger as well as a variety of salads and grilled chicken sandwiches. The entire fast food industry has been experimenting with oils that don’t contain trans-fats to get ahead of trans-fat bans and many fast food restaurants post the calories contained in each item—some even directly on many of the food containers.

And, of course, parents can stop their children from eating unhealthy fast food by not giving them the money to purchase these meals. But that's not enough for the nation’s food nannies, who want government to step in and do parents’ job. The engine behind most of these proposed regulations is the Center for Science in the Public Interest—which last year made a media splash by announcing it would sue McDonalds for daring to give your kids a free toy (the nerve!). And they’ve followed through with the suit.

In December, CSPI and California mother Monet Parham filed suit against McDonalds Corporation because the company “exploits very young California children and harms their health by advertising unhealthy Happy Meals with toys directly to them.”

Talking about the lawsuit, Parham explained the harrowing ordeal she faces saying no to her children’s constant demands for McDonalds: “Needless to say, my answer was no, and as usual, pouting ensued and a little bit of a disagreement between us. This doesn’t stop with one request. It’s truly a litany of requests.” Does anyone truly believe that Parham’s children won't still demand french fries, even when packaged without a toy?

Parham captures perfectly how the CSPI views parents: spineless, weak, and at the mercy of children and advertisers. While the CSPI might try to portray itself as being on the side of these poor overwhelmed moms and dads, the truth is the CSPI has nothing but contempt for parents. They view parents as hapless creatures, incapable of making sound decisions about when—and when not—to give their children a treat. American parents everywhere should recoil from this kind of government paternalism.

I, however, feel a little sorry for Parham. Someone needs to get her a Happy Meal.