Most parents worry about what their children eat. We all try our best to encourage them to eat a healthy diet and minimize their exposure to junk food. Part of this process involves spending time trying to explain to kids why it is important to eat a healthy diet and avoid processed foods (underscoring that it isn’t just about body weight but about being healthy on the inside). We try our best to set good examples and set limits so that our kids can grow up to be happy and healthy. Sometimes this means we are the junk food police and have to say no to our kids when we know they are about to make unwise food choice.
For me, this job got a little bit harder when McDonalds added the Winx Club dolls as part of their May-June Happy Meal line. If you aren’t familiar with the Winx girls, they are Barbie-like fairy/heroines and the latest craze among the preschool - age 11 crowd. My daughter and all of her friends love them, so naturally, she stopped dead in her tracks the minute she saw them in the window of a McDonalds and immediately wanted to go in.
Up until this point in her life, she had absolutely no interest in McDonalds or Happy Meals. She knew they existed, but whenever she asked about them she was placated by my response that they were “junk food.” But, after seeing a character that she likes associated with them, she wasn’t as easily swayed. This is how (and how early) the association begins: Young kids like Winx (or insert any other popular characters), and if Winx are in Happy Meals, kids like Happy Meals. It’s classical conditioning in its simplest form: the toy is the unconditioned stimulus, which kids want without any training, the Happy Meal is the neutral stimulus, which kids learn to associate with the toy over time, and thus the food becomes a conditioned stimulus. It doesn’t hurt that the contents of the Happy Meal also are super palatable and can be reinforcing on their own.
It is well known that gimmics like this (“toy premiums”) are associated with food choices. Last year, some jurisdictions in California implemented policies that only permit offering fast-food toy premiums with meals that meet certain nutritional criteria. A Canadian study supported this decision by showing that children were significantly more likely to select healthier Happy Meals when toys were offered with them but not with meals that did not meet a certain nutritional criteria compared to when toys were offered with any type of meal. Interestingly, boys seemed to be especially affected by this, as they were more likely to choose the healthier option when it was paired with a toy than girls. This evidence lends support for the efforts in California, and the more general idea that limiting toy premiums to more nutritious food options may help to promote healthier eating among children.
I am not an advocate of using toys to bribe kids to eat. I don’t think we should be confusing our children about the purpose of food, which should be to get energy, not to wolf something down so that you can play with a cheap toy. But I also recognize that it is unlikely that we will see toy premiums banned altogether. I know that there are healthy(er) food options available for the Happy Meal, but if it were a store rule (not a parental rule) that you only received the toy with the healthy choice, it might make all parties involved a little happier. Owners would benefit because parents would benefit because they would get a slight reprieve from being viewed as the food police and would feel better about what their kids were eating, and kids would benefit because they would still get a toy along with the silent benefit of a healthy, nutritious meal.
So, as a Happy medium, why can’t toy premiums only be offered with healthy food options?
Land Use and Economic Development Committee (2010). Ordinance amending Article 8 of the San Francisco Health Code by adding Sections 471.1 through 471.8, to set nutritional standards for restaurant food sold accompanied by toys or other youth focused incentive items. Found at http://www.sfbos.org/ftp/uploadedfiles/bdsupvrs/committees/materials/lu092710_101096.pdf
Hobin EP, Hammond DG, Daniel S, Hanning RM, Manske S. The happy meal® effect: the impact of toy premiums on healthy eating among children in Ontario, Canada. Can J Public Health. 2012 May 24;103(4):e244-8.
Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist/psychologist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction. She has published over 60 scholarly journal articles, as well as several book chapters on topics related to food, addiction, obesity and eating disorders. She recently edited the book, Animal Models of Eating Disorders (Springer/Humana Press, 2013), and she has a book Why Diets Fail (Ten Speed/Crown) available for preorder now and to be released Dec. 3, 2013. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Eating Disorders Association.