Fast Food Fracas — What You Can Do.

If anyone else is scratching his or her head about the recent San Francisco ordinance to ban toys with fast food meals over 600 calories, they may be banging those same heads against the wall at a recent Yale study that effectively criticizes the line workers at fast food restaurants for adding to childhood obesity.

Before I get into specifics, let’s just look at the prevailing state of cognitive dissonance in the country right now. On one hand, there is the San Francisco City Council that feels it is making a strong step in the battle against childhood obesity by legislating what kids can eat. On the other hand, there is Texas Governor Rick Perry, taking on (incorrectly, as it turns out) Federal rules on salt as a means of selling a book about reducing government. We live in a country that is now so ideologically fragmented, that all sides of all positions are being aired at all times without any respect to facts of science, and the only constant is that the people behind these positions are going to pander to whatever is going to get them headlines.

The assumption in SFO was that kids were being “rewarded” for eating unhealthy food. This assumes that the fast food purveyors are responsible for children’s health. Worse, the Yale spokespeople suggest that despite the fact that the fast food restaurants offer healthier alternatives, the fast food restaurants are not serving the public by not actively offering alternatives when a kids’ meal is ordered.

First, toys don’t make kids fat. Excess calories do. The whole toy-with-meal promotion began not to lure kids into unhealthy eating. (Think of the witch in “Hansel and Gretel.”) But to lure kids into choosing one fast food restaurant over another.

Second, when you go to a restaurant, do you expect or even want your server to suggest something more healthy? In the Yale study, and an ABC News “undercover report,” they asked for a “Hamburger Happy Meal.” That’s a burger, fries, drink and toy. Do we really ask a counter working to assess a child by sight and think “Hmmm, junior’s getting a little pudgy. Better suggest the apple slices.”  The implication is that consumers can’t help themselves.

I don’t dispute that childhood obesity is a problem. I believe that most of the people behind all of this are legitimately concerned about kids’ health. Yet taking away the toy does not solve the underlying problem. People who are in recovery will tell you that taking away the drug is only the beginning of the process. And in this case, the drug is the habit of unhealthy, mindless eating, not the toy.

I asked parents at fast food restaurants in Cleveland and Philadelphia why they went there, and they all said a version of the same thing. “It’s easy, and my kids will eat it.” I also observed parents in airports offering their, ahem, zaftig offspring Cinnabon rolls. (730 calories each!) That’s the problem—wanting things to be easy. The parents are making a choice based on their need for ease, which, trumps the desire for healthy eating. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault is not in the available choices but in ourselves.

So what can parents do? I’m afraid there’s no easy way around it, but here are some suggestions:

  • Make fast food a treat rather than a habit. Even once a week in the context of an otherwise healthy diet won’t hurt. Elite athletes on highly restricted diets indulge themselves one day a week.
  • Model healthy eating. Kids do what they see, and your behavior is what shapes their values.
  • Educate yourself about nutrition and eating and how many calories a child (or you) should consume in a day.
  • If you value your children’s health (and your own), make a conscious effort to eat healthy—even when it means eschewing things you love for longer-term health.
  • Save money. Fast food is expensive when you consider what you get. Take the time to make sandwiches, lunches, etc., and you’ll not only economize but you’ll be healthier. (Fast food restaurants will tell you that they’re not concerned about the 25 cents or so they spent on a toy when the average check when a parent brings in a child for a meal is $8-$10.)
  • Come up with alternate rewards. Let’s say that there’s some truth to the notion that a toy encourages a child to eat poorly. Why not go to the dollar store and pick up a bunch of trinkets to add fun for your kids. (Many of them will feature the movie titles being sold with the meals.) I’m not advocating this as a long-term strategy, but in some cases I don’t see the harm.

Many parents tell me that some battles aren’t worth fighting, and I wholeheartedly agree. In this case, though, this one is. You are ultimately responsible. Better to brook a child’s disappointment today than deal with health problems later.

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