Dr. Avena also notes, “When parents take their kids to McDonald’s, it is most often as a ‘treat’ so they let their kids order what they want.” If you are already standing at the counter with your child, it can be hard to convince them to have water and no dessert. Dr. Avena points out, “the 4 piece chicken nugget Happy Meal with fries, apple slices, and chocolate milk, is 20 percent of the daily recommended amount of saturated fat, 23 percent of sodium, and more than 50 percent of sugar.” The numbers increase staggeringly if a dessert is added, which can be hard to avoid if you have already agreed to McDonald’s.
Also of particular worry, according to Dr. Avena, is the toy. “Kids form an association between the taste of this food and toys.” Since toys are fundamentally enjoyable for children, “the taste becomes associated with that love.” Dr. Avena explains, “It is classical conditioning in psychology, and it works.” Learning is influenced by conditioning and McDonald’s has chosen a seemingly innocent toy to create this association. Dr. Avena doesn’t think McDonald’s will remove the toy any time soon “because it would break the association and this is how they get kids hooked.” They are more likely to create lifelong consumers by serving a Happy Meal alongside an identifiable branded toy. If parents choose to bring their children to McDonald’s, it is important for them to be informed and know the potential downstream effects of regular visits.