Toys could put the 'happy' back in Happy Meals

For nearly three generations, collectible toys that have accompanied food packages, such as stickers in Cracker Jack, Happy Meals at McDonald’s, and the Club BK Kids Meals, have put smiles on many children’s faces.

However, according to two marketing researchers, those multiple trips to the same restaurant and numerous drives across town to a restaurant’s different locations may also put a smile on parents’ faces if the collectible toys are adequately paired with meals which promote healthy food choices. According to a new University-sponsored study, children between the ages of 2 and 5 can be influenced to prefer healthy food choices, such as soup, mixed vegetables and milk when a toy is seen as one that is missing from their collectible set.

“This influence is real,”said T. Bettina Cornwell, a University marketing professor and co-author of the study. “Toys, in a young child’s mind, make food potentially taste better. They don’t know yet, because they haven’t tried it, but if children are constantly exposed to foods that are heavy in sugar, salts and fats and regularly buying meal deals that have a toy, then those are the foods that they start to know and like.”

The study is the first of its kind to demonstrate the influence a toy has on a child’s perception of meals. Anna McAlister, another co-author of the study and an instructor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said work began nearly two years ago to address the issue of obesity in the United States, which affects nearly one-third of all adults and 17 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 19 according to the Center for Disease [email protected]@

“When you purchase a meal that comes with a collectible toy, you’re really committing to making multiple purchases,” McAlister said. “Imagine, for example, that you take your child to a restaurant and allow them to purchase a meal that comes with a toy that is a part of a set of five different toys. If you don’t go back to that restaurant and allow your child to get the other four toys, they’re likely going to upset and may be crying.”

Coincidentally, this study has also dovetailed proactive efforts by several states, including California and New York, to ban collectible toys from fast food meals, such as those found at McDonald’s, in order to put pressure on the food industry to come up with healthier options for children. One of the main supporters of these efforts is the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is seeking to institute a nationwide ban on collectible toys that accompany unhealthy meals that do not adequately meet food standards. Margo Wootan, the nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the institution is not against having collectible toys accompany fast food meals, but is more concerned about the influence that the toys have on children to purchase meals that are unhealthy for them.

“A lot of times, kids are more interested in the toy than they are about the food, and the toy is a big incentive for kids to want to get the meals,” Wootan said. “They beg their parents to go to the restaurant and what they usually end up with is an unhealthy meal.”

Despite the opposition against having collectible toys removed from unhealthy meal deals, Wootan explained that positive changes, such as the 10-year process to remove sodas from vending machines in schools, do happen overnight.

“I think it’s controversial because it’s a relatively new idea and people are still learning about why it’s important,” Wootan said. “But, if you really think about it, it doesn’t make sense that in America today, kids’ food becomes synonymous with the most unhealthy food choices. If you go into any restaurant, the kids’ menu is usually comprised of hamburgers, cheeseburgers, pizza, and it comes with a side of fries and a soda. We should be making sure that children’s food in the food market are one of the healthiest options.”

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