Dr. Joel SteelmanThe Happy Meal™ turned 30 this year. I recently had a personal lesson courtesy of my daughter, Kate, on the effectiveness of marketing with Happy Meal™ toys.  After watching the new Ice Age Movie 3, we started a quest for the Diego toy which finally ended after six trips and four Happy Meals™ later at various McDonald’s in the Dallas/Fort Worth metro area.

McDonald’s has received a lot of negative publicity in the past with allegations of contributing to obesity in both kids and adults. The movie Super Size Me is one example of McDonald’s in a negative light. For my part, I learned a few things from all those trips besides the extra calories from portions of Kate’s uneaten Happy Meals™. I had the opportunity to view McDonald’s from the standpoints of parent, patron, and pediatric doctor.

I was already aware that McDonald’s had easy to find nutritional information for their menu choices. They also have the info on the wrapper of many of their foods. The carbohydrate information has been very useful to kids that I see with type 1 diabetes who calculate their insulin dose by carbohydrate counting. I also learned while preparing this post that McDonald’s sponsors a program for promoting increased physical activity.

McDonald’s, like any restaurant, especially fast food restaurants, presents challenges for adults and their children to make healthy choices. I had the opportunity to practice making food choices while the Happy Meal™ toy hunt was on.

I want to share my practical experience on how Kate and I made our food choices. The US Department of Agriculture has a website MyPyramid.gov with nutritional information including calorie goals for children and adults

Kate’s goal for an average meal assuming three meals per day would be roughly 450 calories. This doesn’t consider details like fat, carbohydrates, and fiber, that’s too much detail in most real-life circumstances in my opinion.

Nutrition information is available for the Happy Meal™ on the McDonald’s website. There is a range from 380 calories to 700 calories for a meal depending on choices you make on things such a burgers vs nuggets, fries vs apples, and drink choice. Kate likes chicken nuggets; so, we chose that along with milk for the calcium. We substituted apples for fries which makes a difference for total meal calories. Below is a screenshot from the McDonald’s website with Kate’s diet choice.

My calorie range for an adult man is in the ballpark of 2000-2500 calories per day which gives me an average meal calorie target of around 750 calories. I usually get a grilled chicken sandwich combo meal or one of the salads if I eat at McDonald’s. Below is an example of the grilled chicken sandwich combo.

Grilled chicken sandwich with mustard instead of mayonnaise = 370 calories
Large fries (I only eat about half the package)  = 250 calories
Diet = 0 calories
Total: = 620 calories

I want to be clear that before I end that calorie targets are just estimates; so, calorie needs will be different based on physical activity and other health factors. The MyPyramid.gov website can help with calculating more specific calorie ranges. There’s also MyPyramid for kids which has good resources on nutrition and activity for children.

Disclosure: Cook Children’s and Dr. Steelman have no financial interests with McDonald’s or the Ice Age 3 movie.