My kids almost can’t fathom that when I was a kid, Happy Meals weren’t something you could just order any old time. They were “for a limited time only,” and came along in connection with a movie or special event that informed the toy. Not so different from the way they’re presented today, but instead of having a Matchbox or Beanie Baby offering when there was no movie or other promotion, there just weren’t Happy Meals. I tell them this story, and then they ask me what it was like when there was no indoor plumbing, and dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Smartasses.
Then someone at McDonald’s woke up and realized that if Happy Meals were available all the time, kids would clamor for them all the time. That’s when things got complicated. When they were available all the time, McDonald’s started taking some heat for not offering “healthy” options, but still luring kids in to eat their food, so they found some “healthy” things to include. That meant that for awhile I had to poll my kids every damned time we went there—did they want the apples or fries? Did they want white milk, chocolate milk, juice, or soda? To say nothing of the initial hamburger/cheeseburger/nuggets option. So that’s 24 possible combinations, times 4 kids equals way too many fucking choices. The lottery odds have lower numbers than the count of possible Happy Meal permutations for my kids.
Now of course they give you both apples and fries automatically, but just last week I discovered that now they’re offering a choice of either apples or a GoGurt. Just shoot me. I didn’t even bother telling them that was an option. They just got the fucking apples.
McDonald’s used to be terrible about the toys. For a long time there was a Toy of the Week and if you didn’t get it the week it was offered, tough shit on you. Ever told a four year old who saw the toys in the display at the drive in, or in the lobby, tough shit you’re not getting Donkey from Shrek because that was last week’s toy? Yeah, I bet that went over well. Then it seemed they changed that, and sent a shipment of everything at once, but then you’d order four Happy Meals and they’d give you four different toys. Seriously? WTF? Come on, McDonald’s. It’s bad enough that I have to listen to the same two lines of dialog from Sulley that sounds like it was recorded through a set of walkie talkies, but to have to listen to them fight over who gets Sulley and who gets Mike is just the limit.
Eventually they started giving out the same toy in every meal. I don’t know if enough parents threatened to beat the shit out of McDonald’s CEO, or if someone who works for McDonald’s took their multiple kids there for a Happy Meal and discovered that they did this, vocalized the problem, and a change was made at the corporate level, but I do know that now they put the same toy in every bag or box, at least at my McDonald's.
Thing is, my kids are too old for the toys. They’re at that age where they’re old enough to want them, but not old enough that the toys can hold their interest for longer than it takes them to consume a cheeseburger (2.6 minutes, give or take). When they were little, they’d bring them home and add them to the basket of forty thousand other Happy Meal toys, and Remy the Rat and the Madame Alexander Wicked Witch of the West doll would often find themselves in the same imaginary scenario. But now they’re too old to play like that, so they get the toy and fondle it for seven or eight minutes until they’re done with their lunch, then leave it in the car for four months.
Yes, you. I hate you all.
They have what I think of as Trade Show Mentality. You know, you go to someplace where lots of companies are giving out stuff, and you must have one of everything. In spite of the fact that “one of everything” = three pens with various logos, five magnets with calendars on them, plus twenty seven “stress balls” in various shapes and sizes. The industry name for this stuff is “special products” but behind the scenes it’s referred to as “trinkets and trash.” You take this crap home and it clutters up your house for the next four years until you toss it out, but the desire to possess it in the moment is almost overwhelming.
Beyond the toys, Happy Meals no longer offer enough food for my kids. The boys especially are getting into the never-mind-a-plate-give-the-kid-a-trough-and-a-bucket-of-milk-with-a-straw stage, so they want the Happy Meal plus five supplemental items. It’s not so much the cost of this that bothers me—I’ve never bothered to calculate how much the Happy Meal components would cost if you bought them a la carte, so I have no idea if a Happy Meal is cheaper or not. What bothers me is that the more stuff you order, the greater the chance McDonald’s will fuck up your order. You’re with me here, right? If I can order two number whatevers with Cokes, plus two extra cheeseburgers with just ketchup, there are only three things they have to keep straight—what sandwiches, what size drink/fries, and nothing but ketchup on the cheeseburgers. If I order one cheeseburger Happy Meal with just ketchup, one with McNuggets, one with juice, and one with chocolate milk, plus two cheeseburgers with just ketchup, the opportunities for them to fuck up my order are almost countless. And based on my previous experiences, the temptation is just irresistible to them.
For now they still occasionally demand Happy Meals, and I usually give in and buy them, along with the twenty dollars in additional food. I let them have their moment with the toys, and as soon as they walk away from them, I take them and toss them in the recycling. I’ve never had a kid come back a day later and say, “Hey, what happened to that Mario Kart toy car I got yesterday in my Happy Meal?” The day will come when the orders will be simplified and McDonald’s won’t be able to screw them up. Who am I kidding—of course they will. Some things never change.