It’s common place to criticize McDonald’s and other fast-food franchises for marketing fattening food to kids. This week McDonald’s has responded by changing the composition of their famous Happy Meals. The toy is still in the box, though.
McDonald’s and I go back a long way. I’m old enough to remember when they sold their hamburgers for 15 cents. There was no seating. You just walked up between the Golden Arches and placed your order. Then you went home, or sat in your car, to eat it.
Once or twice a month, we’d have McDonald’s for dinner. Either my dad wanted to treat us (and himself), or my mom was too tired to cook, or both. The Happy Meal had yet to be invented. By the time McDonald’s came to our town, I was too old for Happy Meals even if they’d had them then. But every meal from McDonald’s made me happy. I had the same thing every time: two hamburgers, fries and a chocolate shake.
McDonald’s wasn’t health food, but everyone knew that. The only vegetables and fruits involved were in the ketchup, pickles and onions.
If you wanted a salad, you went somewhere else.
Things had changed a lot by the time I became a father. My kids grew up with Happy Meals. One liked the hamburger version, the other the chicken nugget version, and they both liked the fries and the toys. When they were very young, I got them milk instead of pop. As they got older, they wanted pop. The hamburger-lover often did not want the bun — a natural low-carber! — so I’d eat the half that had the condiments on it. Sometimes, I’d eat the other half, too. And I cleaned up any leftover fries. Even though our kids loved fries, they usually left some.
Usually, the kids and I went to McDonald’s because my wife was away. In those days, she bowled once a week, and that was always a McDonald’s night.
Ironically, my kids grew up slender, at least visibly unaffected by Happy Meals, but I got steadily fatter. The kid’s were pickier eaters than me. They always seemed to leave some food uneaten. I was paying for the food, so I didn’t want any of it to go to waste.
It went to my waistline, instead.
I’m sure McDonald’s and other fast-food meals contributed to my weight gain in those years, but it wasn’t the only factor. We were eating fast-food at least once a week, sometimes twice. I was carbo-loading from other sources on the other days.
Would the new, healthier Happy Meals just announced by McDonald’s have helped me or the kids?
One change is fewer fries in a kid’s order. So, in our case, there may not have been as many left over for dear old dad — a good thing for me, but probably the kids would’ve eaten the same amount of fries. Another change is apple slices in every Happy Meal (rather than as a substitute for fries). My guess is, my wife or I would have eaten many of the apples slices. Any apples the kids ate would’ve been better than eating more fries.
But overall, who knows? Maybe my kids would’ve eaten more of the food with the new meals than they did with the old, and the extra calories would have had a negative effect.
Comparing the new four-piece chicken nuggets meal with the old one, there are 410 calories instead of 520, 17g fat instead of 23g, and 58g carbs instead of 69g.
Trimming the meal by 11g of carbs is a move in the right direction, but as a practical matter, 58g of carbs in a single meal is too many for a low-carbing adult, let alone a kid.
The only way to eat low-carb at McDonald’s is to avoid the fries, the buns and the sweetened drinks. That was true before the latest changes, and it’s true now.
I don’t regret taking my children to McDonald’s to eat, anymore than I regret having eaten there myself as a child.
But I do regret taking my kids as often as I did — as much for my own sake as theirs.
If I had to do it over, I’d have bought them more toys and fewer meals with toys. But if I had to do it over, I’d have been eating low-carb my entire adult life, too. That is what would’ve made the most difference.
Am I letting McDonald’s off the hook? Not really. What matters more to a business than sales? Since I started eating low-carb, I hardly buy fast-food at all. It’s not a rigid policy, or a moral stand; it’s just how things have worked out. I’ll order a bun-less cheese-burger off the dollar-menu every month or so, with a side-salad and ice-water.
If everyone did likewise, the arches would lose their luster.