A sneaky parenting trick: pairing toys with healthier fast food

by Sari Harrar

A new Canadian study says that little kids are three times more interested in healthier fast-food options when they’re the only ones that come with a toy. It’s really no surprise…what parent hasn’t had a little kid go wild in the backseat for a little plastic thingie in their fast-food sack and barely notice what they’re eating? But…this study gave me a sneaky idea. Why not set your own “toys with good food only” rule at the drive-through?

Canadian scientists stacked the deck.  They offered 350 kids, ages 6 to 12, McDonalds Happy Meals of better and worse nutritional quality -- but a little plastic Smurf toy came only with the good stuff. Kids could choose a hamburgers or a grilled chicken wrap with fries and a soda or with  apple slices and bottled water. The kids were going to a YMCA day camp and ordered the meals from a form, so the researchers could manipulate which had the toys.

The scientists say they hope the finding will convince McDonald’s and other toy-happy chains to incentivize their healthier kids meals. But in a statement, McDonald’s Canada said no dice. “The toy is a fun and engaging part of the Happy Meal experience for kids and parents alike, and we have no plans to change it,” the company said.

This made the researchers sad. “They’re investing tons of money,” the lead researcher told the news media. “They know toys have a strong influence on kids’ food choices. Our study is supporting that.  But they can also encourage healthy eating, not necessarily only for kids to order fries and the hamburger and pop. According to the researcher, the top-10 U.S. fast-food chains spend almost $1-billion a year on child-directed marketing and toy premiums.

You could wait for change, or you could use this to create change. Gotta use the drive-through? Why not just tell your kids they’ll get a toy only with a meal that includes milk and fruit. They’ll get less fat and sodium and a nutritional bonus: An extra serving of dairy -- rich in calcium, vitamin D and magnesium -- and about a half-serving of produce.

Give it a try and let philly.com know how it goes!