I remember getting Happy Meals as a kid on our occasional trips to McDonald's. It's an odd memory, since I've been a vegan for nearly a decade. But even at the time, there was a recognition that Happy Meals were a treat, not a nutritious meal to be routinely consumed.
Today, it seems clear that the Happy Meal doesn't belong in any child's diet at all. We're facing an epidemic of medical conditions that children just weren't facing at the same rate when I was born. And parents are much better equipped to make informed decisions about their family's diet through the advent of home Internet access.
Despite better information access, advertisers have latched onto our kids, and parents often feel helpless at fighting the unhealthy onslaught. But making healthier choices doesn't have to be a chore. It's really about cutting through the noise.
We can begin by examining what's going wrong in our children's current diets. And the easiest place to start is with the omnipresent cultural lunch meal we've all grown up knowing.
So, let's talk about the McDonald's Happy Meal.
What's in a Happy Meal?
Using the "meal builder" function on the company's official website, I put together a standard Happy Meal with a cheeseburger. This includes the cheeseburger, child-sized fries, apple slices and chocolate milk.
There are other variations and substitutions available. But for continuity, the rest of this article will discuss the Happy Meal using those specific items and the nutritional recommendations for children between the ages of 4 and 8 years old.
Weirdly high in sugar
A child's daily sugar intake should not exceed 12.5 grams. The Happy Meal contains 32 grams of sugar. You read that correctly: this single meal contains multiple times the amount of sugar your child should be having in the entire day.
Even if we cut the healthy sugar from the apple slices, we're still left with 29 grams of sugar. So don't be fooled into thinking these sugars are from the fruit.
From weakened immune systems to acid reflux, there are so many reasons to keep the level of sugar intake in a healthy range for your family.
Way too much salt
Your kid shouldn't have more than 1,200 mg of salt per day. But the American diet is brimming with unnecessary salt.
The Happy Meal contains 880 mg of salt. Keep in mind, this is a single meal. McDonald's food calculator says this is "37 percent" of the daily recommended intake, which is clearly wrong.
Is McDonald's lying? Not exactly. The meal builder is using the government-recommended standards for adults on a 2,000 Calorie per day diet and failing to calculate the fact that this meal is for a child, not an adult.
Children develop the taste for salt at a young age, and consuming too much of it can result in heart disease later in life.
Where are the vitamins?
The Meal Builder lists exactly two vitamins for the Happy Meal. It contains the full daily value of vitamin C, which is nice. But let's be real: vitamin C is everywhere and your kid probably already got their daily intake of it before we even arrived at lunch.
The other is vitamin A, of which the Happy Meal contains a measly 770IU of vitamin A. That is less than the amount of vitamin A contained in one-tenth of a small carrot.
How about the animals?
It goes without saying that the Happy Meal is the product of animal abuse. Harming animals simply isn't necessary to create a healthy diet for children.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals actually has an entire website (warning: graphic) documenting the wanton animal abuse at McDonald's, especially the awful ways their suppliers treat chickens. Chickens are subject to especially terrible treatment because the Animal Welfare Act completely excludes them, leaving very little legal recourse to help abused chickens.
This is not to say cows are treated well. Cows are abused terribly in the industry at large. Also, red meat (like in the cheeseburger) is among the culprits resulting in the astronomical type 2 diabetes rate in our nation's kids. It's also just generally not good for you. One study showed that daily red meat eaters were 30 percent more likely to die of any given cause in a 10-year periods.
A good rule to live by: If an animal was hurt to make your child's food product, there's a better option for both the animals and your kid's health.
There's meat in the damn fries!
McDonald's is a particularly sneaky offender. You may've noticed that their french fries don't taste the same as any others on the market.
I remember coming to the realization as a vegan teenager when I noticed that the McDonald's fries I was consuming seemed out-of-place compared to fries I was used to eating. So I did some sleuthing and discovered that my suspicions were well-founded. There's actually beef tallow used to make the fries!
The company paid $10 million after being sued by vegetarians who were mortified to discover they'd been eating meat products and had absolutely no idea because McDonald's didn't bother mentioning it in any meaningful way.
They still haven't reformulated the fry-recipe to be plant-based.
Skip McDonald's and make a happier meal at home
Despite slick advertising and colorful playgrounds, there's nothing redeeming in a McDonald's Happy Meal meal for your kids.
Whip up some hummus with vegetables and pita chips, make some homemade lemonade and enjoy knowing your kids are having a nutritious lunch that took less time to make than a trip to McDonald's.
Or, if you want to make a McDonald's-style treat, grab a bag of Boca Chik'n nuggets or veggie patties at the store along with some beef-free french fries and have a Happier Meal with your kids.
Once you're done, head off to the park and explore nature as a family. You'll all have way more fun.
While the kids soak up some vitamin D from playing outside, you won't have to wonder how to get your screaming child out from inside that smelly, plastic McDonald's tube.