Image: Kids with Ronald McDonald
Andrew Poertner  /  Roswell Daily Record via AP file
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em:The key to battling the Golden Arches is pushing your produce and making it fun, fun, fun!
updated 8/10/2007 10:03:48 AM ET 2007-08-10T14:03:48

A study published this week proved what many parents already know: Nothing gets kids salivating like the McDonald’s logo.

When Stanford researchers gave preschoolers identical foods in McDonald’s packaging and unmarked wrappers, the Golden Arches won the taste test every time.

The finding has outraged child-advocacy groups and left many nutrition-conscious parents feeling defeated.

How are moms and dads supposed to compete with McDonald’s $1.7 billion advertising budget? By stealing McDonald’s marketing strategies, of course.

“Oftentimes, parents will tell me that their experience is that this is a losing battle,” says Dr. David Ludwig, associate professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “But my message is that they can actually win.” They just need to think like an advertiser.

When Liesl Hyde’s daughter, Madi, was a toddler, McDonald’s was the “magic button.” The little girl would refuse to eat all day, but the sight of the familiar sign could spark her hunger.

Hyde, who works in advertising sales, didn’t ban the food, though. Instead, she made it a point to start observing what it was about the fast food that made it work.

Offer fruits and veggies often
Part of the toddler appeal, she discovered, was that McDonald’s was recognizable and ubiquitous.

“At some point I started to use this idea with Madi and the foods I wanted her to eat. I decided I was going to keep exposing her to a variety of healthy foods, and even if she said she didn’t like them or wouldn’t eat them, I kept it up,” recalls Hyde of Orono, Minn.

Gradually, Madi started accepting a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

Hyde also took another important step during Madi’s early years: she limited television viewing.

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Ludwig, who is also co-author of “Ending the Food Fight” and founder of the pediatric obesity clinic at Children’s Hospital in Boston, sees television, not even necessarily food, as the first place for parents to start fighting back.

“Kids learn to like the food they see their parents eat and to which they are exposed,” he says. “But fast-food marketing undermines the parental role in this regard. Television in particular gives young children direct and repeated exposure to extraordinarily unhealthful foods right in the home. Many children will see food ads several dozen times a day. Even if parents eat healthful food at every meal, there could still be a ratio of 10 advertisements to every one healthful meal.”

Get the TV out of the kitchen
There has been a considerable amount of research that proves children who view commercials will nag their parents for certain foods, Ludwig says. After a few bouts of nagging, parents generally give in and the children end up eating the advertised foods, which are almost universally of little nutritional value.

“The biggest vehicle for exposure [to unhealthful foods] is sitting right in the middle of the living room — and far too often also in the kitchen and bedroom,” says Ludwig, whose first rule is to the get the TV out of the kitchen.

“Viewing during meals is unhealthful for a variety of reasons. They’re getting brainwashed at ground zero, the kitchen. But kids are also getting distracted from paying attention to their food, how they feel and if they are full. Mealtime should be a time for quality time and building your relationship,” he says.

He recommends everyone in the family keep a TV-viewing log and to limit kids’ TV time to two hours a day or less. Try to stick to DVDs, recorded shows (so you can skip through commercials) or stations such as PBS that tend to have more redeeming programs with less advertising.

Make your own Happy Meals
Parents who want to compete with the power of McBranding also need to remember to make the healthier meals happier meals.

“What fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s have really done well is make it fun. If you see families eating there, they are generally in a good mood — the parents don’t have to cook, the kids are eating and everybody is talking and having a good time,” says Marilyn Tanner-Blasiar, a pediatric dietician at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “We need to create that fun atmosphere at home — turn off television, sit at the table and eat, talk and have a good time.”

There should be healthy food and a positive feeling around eating at the dinner table. Don’t attack children at dinnertime for doing poorly at school or misbehaving. “Emotions can be strongly connected to food, and this starts very young,” she warns.

Tanner-Blasiar also points out that while fast-food restaurants aren’t havens for healthful eating, there are better options these days. “At many places there are apple slices, oranges, milk, yogurt and fruit parfaits … an occasional fast-food meal can fit into an overall healthful eating plan, especially if you make some better choice.” She notes that children will often eat the healthier options if parents simply get them and open them up in front of the kids.

Andrea Giancoli, a registered dietitian in Los Angeles, also says that an occasional fast-food meal isn’t the end of the world. However, she advises parents to investigate their grocery stores more thoroughly.

“There are a lot of convenience items in grocery stores on the healthier side now,” she says. There are completely prepared fruits, vegetables, soups, salads and entrees. “One of the biggest benefits is that even if you’re only assembling, you can involve your children in the process. We know that the more involved kids are in the preparation, the more likely they are to eat the food.”

And if that fails, you might try wrapping those brussels sprouts in a McDonald’s bag.

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.

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