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Have It Your Way: The Evolution of the Kids' Meal

Fast food restaurants attempt to make Happy Meals seem a little happier.


In 1979, McDonalds sold its first Happy Meal in the United States. By pairing deep-fried, sauce-slathered foods with an unending parade of new toys, McDonalds exploded America's junk food audience. Fast-food joints spent the next three decades competing to capitalize on the kid market, then trying to make that look less bad.

In recent years, that dance has gotten trickier. Parental and government concerns over the aggressive marketing of fast food to kids have reached a boiling point. McDonalds has responded by downsizing its fries and letting kids choose white or chocolate milk instead of soda. Jack in the Box stopped pairing toys with its kids' meals. Burger King rolled out apples cut to look like french fries. This month, the King upped its feel-good game: it is now pairing its kids' meals with kid-friendly charitable donations.

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Should Burger King Do More Than Just Hint at Apple Fries?

Optimal defaults could change fast-food orders. Companies should go a step further and offer discounts for healthier choices.

Today, the National Restaurant Association rolled out a new healthy eating initiative called Kids Live Well. Expect to see more healthy snacks like "apple fries" at places better known for the classic deep-friend potato version: Burger King, Friendly's, Sizzler, and Au Bon Pain are all participating in the program.

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Kids Watch Thousands of Hours of Fast Food Advertisements (Almost None of It's Healthy)

Fast food Ad watch: Out of 3,039 likely meal combinations, only about a dozen met nutrition standards the researchers set out for preschoolers.

The United States population is growing—and a lot of that’s happening around the waistline. More than 15 percent of children are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite Michelle Obama’s high-profile effort to combat child obesity, San Francisco’s ban on the Happy Meal, marketing extravaganzas for baby carrots, and promises by fast-food companies to offer healthier fare, a big marketing effort targets kids—with the hopes that they'll nag mom and dad for French fries, footlongs, and frappes.

In 2009, fast food advertisers spent more than $4.2 billion on media to draw customers into their restaurants, according to a report released by the Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Which means that, every day, the average preschooler saw about three fast food ads, the average child saw three and a half ads, and the average teen saw close to five ads. That's somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 hours a year.

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