Toys or No Toys in Fast-Food Meals?
Kids have been doing it for hundreds of years: buying junk food just for the toy inside the box. When I was a kid, we bought box after box of Cracker Jack just so we could eat our way to a cheap, worthless toy that we would never play with for more than two minutes—if at all. Lured by my yet-to-be-diagnosed addictive personality and the catchy, finger-snapping lyric, “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,” I saved my hard-earned chore money and frequented the local drugstore daily, where I soon became a Cracker Jack statistic.
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This article was featured on The Weekly Grind, Omaha’s young professional radio program, on February 12, 2011 - Listen to the show!
Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Since the early 1900s, approximately 17 billion toys have been stuffed inside Cracker Jack packages by little elves who work at the Cracker Jack factory during the Christmas off-season. As a result, my bedroom wastebasket was jam-packed with such useless toys as finger puppets, plastic miniature sheep, and colorful whistles—all of which filled me with as much enjoyment as a dust rag and mop. Thankfully, as years passed, my addiction to Cracker Jack toys was soon replaced with a 24-by-7 fascination with boys, disco dancing, and big hair.
This week, a bill was introduced in the Nebraska Legislature that would restrict fast-food restaurants from giving away toys with children’s meals unless those meals met specific nutritional and calorie requirements. To be honest, I’m a little undecided on how I feel about this new bill. I grew up during a time when we ate dinner at our own kitchen table every night. If we ever ate in a restaurant, it was for a special occasion. Once in a blue moon, my father would take me and my sisters to King’s, a local burger joint, where we were thrilled to sit at a table that came equipped with a phone. Once we decided what we wanted to eat, my Dad let us pick up the phone and call the kitchen to place our order. It was a big deal. Our meals didn’t come with toys, but we didn’t know any better. We just loved that phone and on the nights we ate out, we felt special.
Now, as the mother of two teenagers, I still insist on dinners at our kitchen table. I know we’re not the norm, but having dinner at a fast-food restaurant always has been a once- or twice-a-year experience for all of us, despite the days when my children were enthralled with the advertisements for the kids’ meal toys. To date, we have never eaten in our car, on the side of the road, or in a parking lot. Instead, we have turned our kitchen table into a lively meeting place where our children’s friends have an open invitation, our extended family is welcome, and where we generally attempt to eat well-balanced, healthy meals that I plan a week ahead. I think every mother has something she feels passionate about enforcing in her own family. For me, it’s sharing home-cooked meals together at our table.
On the other side of the coin, I completely understand mothers who are pulled in fifteen different directions on any given day, who just spent eight hours trying to please a demanding boss, or whose four children are balancing three activities each. After a long day, mothers everywhere begin to panic as they wonder while driving home, “In the name of the ghost of Julia Child, what in the heck am I going to make for dinner?” It’s a no-brainer—fast food is the most logical choice when it’s six o’clock, the kids are hungry, and all you want to do is just go home and put your feet up in front of the television.
Personally, instead of seeing such a restrictive bill pass through our legislature, I’d like to see our children receive a consistent education about nutrition, healthy eating, and good food choices in our school systems. I’d like to see more parents trading recipes for quick, easy weeknight meals that will keep their children close to the kitchen table at home. I’m not expecting miracles—perhaps just a little more effort from everyone.
I say keep the prizes in the meals and let’s all make a conscious decision to start changing the way we look at dinnertime and our busy schedules. Because when all is said and done, we know the real gift our children receive at dinner every night is parents who listen, laugh, and love unconditionally—a prize that I’m pretty certain will never come in a kid’s meal or a Cracker Jack box.
lead photo by oddharmonic