Video: Making kids’ meals happy without the toys

  1. Transcript of: Making kids’ meals happy without the toys

    MATT LAUER, co-host: If you're a parent you know that kids love getting those free toys that come in kids' meals , but now lawmakers in San Francisco are cracking down. Amy Robach is back with details on that. Amy , good morning.

    AMY ROBACH reporting: Hey, Matt , good morning to you. The city's board of supervisors took its first vote on Tuesday to ban toys from all kids' meals that fail to meet nutritional standards set by the city. The bill's sponsor says the idea is to fight childhood obesity , but skeptics wonder if it's as simple as banning toys. Go to a fast-food restaurant and you know kids love the toys in so-called happy meals . But in San Francisco , lawmakers want to get rid of the toys. On Tuesday, Eric Mar and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted eight-to-three to ban giveaways in kids' meals that don't meet nutritional standards set by the city.

    Mr. ERIC MAR: As a father and a legislator, I think we need to be creative in addressing the childhood obesity crisis in this country.

    ROBACH: If the bill becomes law, kids would only get a toy if the meal meets the following guidelines. It must be less than 600 calories with reduced sodium, fat and sugar. It must also include a fruit and vegetable.

    Mr. MAR: Childhood obesity is a problem here like it is throughout the country, and I and many of the parent advocates want to see healthier choices.

    ROBACH: The National Restaurant Association , which represents fast- food chains like McDonald's and Burger King , is against the proposed toy ban, saying "the board chose to push forward an unpopular and misguided ordinances that will likely do nothing to help address this problem. Parents and guardians should be making the decision about their family dining experiences."

    Ms. TONI BLOOM (Registered Dietitian, Funfoodles): The toy is not what's causing us to be fat. What's causing us to be unhealthy and to gain weight over time is to make consistently poor choices, to overeat compared to the food amounts that we need, and to not be moving our bodies as much as our bodies require.

    ROBACH: Parents we spoke with are unhappy with the idea of government acting as the fast-food police.

    Unidentified Woman #1: The toy is not actually bad for a child at all. A toy is a toy, and people buy kids toys all the time.

    Unidentified Man: My opinion is we all have our own choices and we as adults need to steer our children in the right direction.

    Unidentified Woman #2: I think they're wrong. I think it's other things that need to be taken care of instead of worrying about some toy.

    ROBACH: San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has threatened to veto the bill, but right now the board has a super majority and can overrule him. A final vote is set for next week and if approved the ban would go into effect in December of 2011 . Matt.

    LAUER: All right, Amy Robach . Amy , thanks very much. David Zinczenko is editor-in-chief of Men's Health magazine , and of course the author of the " Eat_This ,_Not_That!" series. Madelyn Fernstrom is TODAY's diet and nutrition editor. Good morning to both of you. Nice to see you.

    Mr. DAVID ZINCZENKO (Author, "Cook This, Not That!"): Good morning, Matt.

    Ms. MADELYN FERNSTROM (Today Diet and Nutrition Editor): Hey, Matt , good morning.

    LAUER: Just go, you weigh in on this. What do you think of this idea?

    Mr. ZINCZENKO: I think the San Fran board deserves their own toy. I think they deserve a prize. I don't think it goes far enough. I think when you market something specifically for kids, a product, every other time you have to prove that it's safe. Not so for food. And right now you have sit-down chains that are even worse offenders. They're selling 1800 calorie meals to kids, pasta dishes, 1400 calorie mac and cheese quesadilla meals .

    LAUER: Well, we know the meals are crazy. But what about this idea of rewarding the kid for choosing that meal with the toy? What do you think about it ?

    Ms. FERNSTROM: You know, the whole issue of having toy -- you want a toy, go to a toy store . This has to do with food and what kids are eating. So this is a step in the right direction . This kind of change is hard. For too many years we've had this connection of you go to a place and you get some food and you get a toy. You don't do that at home with your kids. So we need to separate this.

    LAUER: So wait, you're nudging -- you're -- you want to nudge parents...

    Mr. ZINCZENKO: Yes.

    Ms. FERNSTROM: Right.

    LAUER: ...and kids in the right direction to make the right choices.

    Ms. FERNSTROM: To wake...

    Mr. ZINCZENKO: You're not banning the toy, you're just saying make it healthier to get the toy.

    Ms. FERNSTROM: Yeah, healthier.

    LAUER: Maybe we should just make it incredibly unequal. You buy a meal that's bad for the kid, the kid gets a pencil.

    Mr. ZINCZENKO: Right.

    LAUER: A good meal they get a puppy or something like that.

    Ms. FERNSTROM: That's right .

    LAUER: I mean, give them incentive.

    Mr. ZINCZENKO: Yeah, and I think the restaurant industry is actually behind the curve. I think the general public wants healthier food alternatives, and sometimes you got to poke the restaurants with a stick to get them to serve a carrot.

    Ms. FERNSTROM: Right. A healthy -- right.

    LAUER: It does boil down to parenting, though.

    Ms. FERNSTROM: Well, it -- parents still have the choice. You can get your child whatever you want. To have a healthier choice is educational. People may look at some of these meals and compared to what? Compared to a giant combo meal they look smaller. But no kid needs to have an 800-plus calorie for a meal.

    LAUER: Right.

    Mr. ZINCZENKO: And parents don't often realize what's on the menu.

    Ms. FERNSTROM: Correct. It's true.

    LAUER: OK, well, let's help them realize that because we've got some popular children's menus here from popular fast-food restaurants. Start me off with McDonald's , David .

    Mr. ZINCZENKO: Well this is a Mighty Kids meal that has 840 calories and it's a double cheeseburger with fries with some reduced-fat chocolate milk . The problem is it's got two-thirds of your entire day's worth of saturated fat in it. It would be like...

    LAUER: Thirty-seven grams.

    Mr. ZINCZENKO: It has seven -- 37 grams of fat, 14 and a half grams of saturated fat .

    LAUER: OK.

    Mr. ZINCZENKO: So just like this Megamind is an -- is an unusually destructive mind, these are destructive calories .

    LAUER: All right, and the healthier alternative?

    Mr. ZINCZENKO: Yeah, this right here is four pieces of chicken McNuggets , some apple dippers and some fat-free milk.

    Chicken McNuggets , Apple Dippers W/ Low Fat Caramel Dip & 1% Low Fat White Milk: 390 Calories , 15 G Fat, 570 Mg Sodium

    LAUER: But isn't it true that even this meal would not fit the criteria for the San Francisco board's ban on toys?

    Mr. ZINCZENKO: At the moment it wouldn't because it's supposed to have a fruit and a vegetable in it.

    LAUER: OK. All right.

    Ms. FERNSTROM: But you know, there's going to be a little wiggle room. It's the way to get started. When you look at this, you see what's the most important thing. The child's going to get some fruit and they're going to get some milk instead of have -- instead of something that's going to be a bad combination. And they still get chicken fingers.

    LAUER: Real quickly, Burger King , David .

    Mr. ZINCZENKO: Yeah, this is eat this, grow up to be a whopper. This is another double cheeseburger and fries. A little bit of apple juice , but it's still coming in at 800 calories and two-thirds your day of saturated fat .

    Mr. ZINCZENKO: So you're much better off just getting the hamburger, getting some apple fries and some reduced fat milk.

    LAUER: What do you think of that one, Madelyn ?

    Ms. FERNSTROM: That one seems fine. Again, you're going to have milk should be the drink of choice. Not juice. That's not a better choice than soda. And again, you're going to have that kids meal effect. It's fine.

    LAUER: Give me the one-liner for Wendy's , David .

    Ms. FERNSTROM: Yeah.

    Mr. ZINCZENKO: A sea of beige. Nothing green there. Nothing green there.

    LAUER: And that's very high in -- it's got 27 grams of fat, a lot of sodium, 690 calories .

    Junior Vanilla Frosty: 690 Calories , 27 G Fat, 1,040 Mg Sodium

    LAUER: And real quickly, the alternative?

    Mr. ZINCZENKO: Hamburger and some orange slices. And not a vanilla flabby -- I mean, Frosty .

    LAUER: Madelyn and David , thanks very much.

    Ms. FERNSTROM: You're welcome.

    Mr. ZINCZENKO: Thanks.

    LAUER: Don't forget, David in the Catskills all weekend long. We're back after your local news.

Image: A Happy Meal box
Jeff Chiu  /  AP file
A typical McDonald's Happy Meal can contain up to a whopping 26 grams of fat and between 400 to 580 calories — about half the calories an average 4 or 5 year old should consume in an entire day.
By Elisa Zied, R.D.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/4/2010 8:39:06 AM ET 2010-11-04T12:39:06
COMMENTARY

The McDonald's Happy Meal is bummed.

The decision of San Francisco city officials Tuesday to crack down on restaurant meals that include free toys unless they meet particular nutritional guidelines is -- depending on whom you ask -- either taking away a parents' right to choose what to feed their children, as some msnbc.com readers have commented, or a gift to frazzled parents up against a massive marketing machine.

What it most likely isn't, however, is a solution to the childhood obesity epidemic.

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In an effort to curb the swelling rates of kids who are overweight or obese, the city's Board of Supervisors voted in favor of a law that would require any meals that package a free toy to include fruits and vegetables and contain no more than 600 calories or 35 percent of its calories from fat (about 210 calories or 23 grams of fat). The meals would also have to contain a beverage that's not loaded with sugar or fat.

The board will revisit and vote again on the law Tuesday, Nov. 9. If passed, the law, expected to go into effect on Dec. 1, 2011, is intended to promote healthy eating habits among kids.

"This is a tremendous victory for our children's health," Supervisor Eric Mar, chief sponsor of the legislation, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

At a time when an estimated 17 percent of young people aged 2-19 years are obese and about an equal number are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the restriction on the popular Happy Meal is a worthy effort.

A typical Happy Meal, with its plastic "Shrek" toys or other action figures, includes either a hamburger or chicken McNuggets, small french fries and a soda, low-fat chocolate milk or apple juice, all to the tune of about 400 calories to 580 calories and up to a whopping 26 grams of fat. For a typical, sedentary 4-5 year-old that's about half of the average 1,200 daily calories needed and about 39 percent of calories needed by a typical 9-year-old.

That's fine if the child is eating a Happy Meal only for special occasions, not every day. But studies have shown that fast food makes up a substantial portion of kids’ calorie intake, and research suggests that children and adolescents who consume fast food tend to consume more total calories, fat, and sodium and have less healthful diets than those who do not.

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McDonald's expressed disappointment in the ordinance. "Parents tell us it's their right and responsibility — not the government's — to make their own decisions and to choose what’s right for their children," McDonald's spokeswoman Danya Proud said in a statement.

Sure, parents can, and do, have a say about what their kids eat, but it's increasingly tough for them to ignore all the temptations out there. Kids are bombarded with food marketing: in 2006 about $870 million was spent on advertising meals to the under 12 set, the prime target for Happy Meals, according to a 2008 Federal Trade Commission report.

It's doubtful that the Happy Meal measure will do much to reverse the tide of overweight children. There are many causes of childhood obesity, including genetic and lifestyle ones.  Decreased physical activity, too many sugary beverages and increased overall calorie intake are factors.

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In fact, ostracizing fatty meals that come with plastic promotional toys could have the unintended consequence of making the product even more appealing to kids, says Chicago-based nutritionist and msnbc.com contributor Janet Helm, R.D., who writes a blog called Nutrition Unplugged.

Story: SF supervisors pass 'Happy Meal' regulations

"It's the forbidden fruit syndrome," Helm says. "In the end, what have we taught families about how to make more nutritious choices?  I believe in balance, not avoidance."

On the other hand, if kids are told they can have the toy if they choose lower-calorie options, they may, in fact, do that. Only time, and real-world studies, will tell.

Another potential positive outcome could be the extra push for restaurants to offer more healthful menu options for kids.

"What about a grilled chicken sandwich instead of fried nuggets?" asks New York nutritionist and Bonnie Taub-Dix, author of “Read it Before You Eat It.” "There's no grilled chicken sandwich for kids at McDonalds. And what about a fish sandwich that's not breaded and fried with breading that's thicker than the fish?"

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