What I Learned About McDonald's Happy Meals

McDonald's Mom's Quality Correspondant's Summit

CafeMom PassionDiva_NY at the Summit.

The following is a guest post from CafeMom member PassionDiva_NY.

I was invited to join four other moms on the 2009 McDonald's Moms' Quality Correspondents Summit.

Like many people, the first thoughts that came to mind were skepticism and curiosity. What exactly do they show these moms, how much information do they divulge, and what is the overall experience like?


I’m not an avid fast-food eater. Nor am I a nutritionist. But I am conscious about what goes into my little ones’ bodies. So off I go into McDonald’s world to learn all about the evolution of the Happy Meal and McDonald’s new coffee line, McCafé.

Our first stop was The Marketing Store, one of the companies that develops the Happy Meal designs and toys. Considering the Happy Meal and I are the same age, I was excited to learn about what it takes to create an actual Happy Meal theme. Before this session, I thought it was just as simple as designing the box and buying several million mini toys from some unknown foreign factory. Ha! -- was I wrong.

The board room was fabulously decorated with displays of archived Happy Meal toys from the very first one – Circus Wagon, to some all time faves, which included 101 Dalmatians, TY Beanie Babies and even the seven-piece Inspector Gadget.

The meeting began with a historical look at the Happy Meal. The first one was nationally released on July 16, 1979 and consisted of 5 Circus Wagon boxes and 5 toys. We viewed several old commercials and more recent ones that turned into favorites. It was apparent and consistent that they wanted their message to be about the fun family time that could be had at a McDonald’s.

We also learned it takes approximately 24 months to complete a Happy Meal theme. From the creative brainstorming, to model rendering and engineering, licensor approvals, and then finally to the Hong Kong production factories, McDonald’s is a part of the process the entire way.

After the slide show we got to walk around The Marketing Store office and had a peek at the different phases a toy endures. Of all the processes, the one that captured my interest most was the safety testing. McDonald’s tests their toys not only for choking, but for fingers getting stuck, hands getting stuck in the flat form or fist form, ear and nose holes, sounds, speed, torque, bite, compression, and pull. If the toy fails during any of these tests, it’s back to the drawing board. Oh, by the way, McDonald’s choking standard is greater than the industry standard, and they vow to share their standards with anyone.

After playing with toys for a while -- and being totally impressed with this company’s standards and processes -- it was off to a local McDonald’s to meet with a few chiefs about the more important component of the Happy Meal: the food.

Many moms have asked why can’t they substitute one item for another in a Happy Meal. The answer is quite simple – in order for a kids meal to be a kids meal, McDonald’s standards says a Happy Meal should not exceed 600 calories. So when adding items to the food choice menu for a Happy Meal, they take into account how that would affect the caloric measurements including their standards for sodium, fat, saturated fat and sugar.

This meeting was another eye-opening experience for me as I learned about the conscious effort this company really takes into developing something for its consumers. McDonald’s is a participant in the Food Ad Pledge, which states that they will not market junk food to kids. They’re already prepared for the changes to come on the 2010 dietary guidelines – what we know as the food pyramid. They have a global advisory council, which consists of doctors who give insight and perspective on their menu.

They recently partnered with The Scripps Research  Institute to focus on research around child obesity and type 2 diabetes.They described this partnership as something way bigger than any company. This is about the health and well-being of everyone. They pride themselves on being partners to parents and teachers and have created resources like http://www.passport2play.com/, which is a barely branded website that gives parents and teachers new and fun ideas on how to get and keep kids active by learning about different games played by other kids around the world.

Considering the cutbacks on a lot of our nation’s physical education classes in our schools, this was pretty big for me. Yes, one can get this information anywhere, but knowing that a company like McDonald’s runs and promotes this site, among many other charitable contributions, spoke volumes to me. Overall, what have I learned from this McDonald's experience?

  • The chicken is all white meat.
  • The milk is really milk.
  • The toys are made with thoughtful and conscious efforts to ensure my kid’s safety.
  • The packing on most toys are 10 times more likely to harm my child than a Happy Meal toy.
  • There is a Hamburger University.
  • The Happy Meal has less calories than my usual daily breakfast.

I can see why McDonald’s wanted to give the average mom this behind-the-scenes experience. And I’m glad they did. I have a new found respect for them. Would I feed my kids burgers and fries every day? Probably not. But I do feel more comfortable knowing that all those misconceptions are truly misconceptions.

Click here to see more of my photos from the Summit. Click here to learn more about the Moms' Quality Correspondents.

Coming next week ... what I learned about McCafé.

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