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Moms & McDonalds: A Love/Hate Story

Ronald. The Golden Arches. French Fries. Whatever species that Grimace character is.

It’s among the most recognizable brands in the world and the most-dined restaurant in human history.

Kids who can’t seem to find the dirty sock on the floor that you’re pointing at right in front of them seem to be able to see the arches and logo from miles away.


It’s been a mainstay of American culture and the American diet for more than two generations now. More than 90% of Americans surveyed have eaten McDonald’s food…only about 20% will admit to having tried Sushi. A full 30% of Americans report eating at McDonalds at least once a month or more, according to Nielsen survey data.

For many Americans, McDonald’s is a ‘guilty pleasure’, something we enjoy when nobody is looking, but not something we might brag about. I think a lot of us ‘cheat’ with McDonald’s, stopping in for a quick French fries and Diet Coke when the minivan is sans children and daddy is on a business trip. You sneak those moments in when you can.

McDonald’s is also often a ‘treat’ for our kids. A reward, a special event of sorts. Did you play hard and do well at soccer practice? That’s worth a Soft-serve® cone. Got 3.9 GPA on your latest report card (that one Math teacher who doesn’t believe in giving “As” as rote ruining the 4.0 mission), definitely a Happy Meal or Kids Value Meal. Helped mom run her homemade cookie fundraising booth at the Stand Up 2 Cancer 5k Walk-Run all day… in the sun? Well, dear child, you just got a Double-Quarter-Pounder Value Meal, plus a vanilla shake and apple pie for dessert!...and yes, sorry about the indigestion you’ll feel later.

Maybe that’s the greatest marketing trick that McDonald’s ever played was how it ingrained itself as part of the childhood rewards hierarchy in the US, and now increasingly in Asia and Africa as well. But the world over, they have partnered with junior sports leagues, schools, and youth organizations to ensure that achievements within those organizations can be rewarded with McDonald’s gift cards and coupons. Much as we might want to judge this as sneaky, you can’t deny the cleverness of it. It doesn’t matter your demographic – visit most communities in the US and McDonalds is probably seen as a community member vital to local youth programs as much as it is a restaurant.

Used wisely, Moms can take advantage of this reality and leverage the power of McDonalds and its status as a ‘treat’ food to their advantage. Plus, done right, it’s pretty affordable, especially when you think of it not just as a food, but as a food + reward/special event combination.

What that spells out is a path that happens to align with what most childhood nutritionists recommend about feeding McDonalds to kids: use in Moderation. If the family has access to McDonald’s all the time or any time they ask for it, it loses its luster.

For busy moms, sometimes McDonalds can be a reward, and sometimes it can represent a special event – host your next child-birthday party at a McDonald’s Playplace™ and all invitees are likely to attend (bonus tip: call the manager ahead of time, most decorate and provide party-favors for free). But McDonald’s is also a great ‘emergency’ partner when you’re low on time but still want your kids to feel the love and reward of mealtime. In less than 30 minutes and under $5 per person, you can feed them, even on the go.

OK, now for the 800-lb gorilla pointing at me from the corner of the room: what about Nutrition? Aren’t these “empty calories”?

I won’t even try to spend time arguing that fast-food is just as healthy as your home-cooked meals. It isn’t- we all know it, so in light of that: protein is protein. The nutritional content of a McDonald’s hamburger patty isn’t significantly different from the hamburger you hand-form at home. Yes, Micky-D's is higher in sodium and probably in fat and sugars, but not that substantially. Also, most (not all) McDonald's locations will add lettuce and tomatoes to a kid's burger or chicken sandwich for free, so don't be afraid to augment the menu to add a little hint of vegetables now and then.

So some of the obvious stuff applies here: if it's all about using in moderation, paired with an otherwise more balanced diet and regular exercise, then fast-food food is likely just fine. If it’s the primary source of nutrition and your kid’s definition of exercise involves playing Minecraft, you might have issues to address.

The good news is that the idea of using McDonald’s as a de facto-reward and having it in moderation go hand in glove. The right amount of use as a reward and healthy amount of consumption as a foodstuff help to reinforce each other: they need to be semi-rare to maximize their value either way.

Now, back to you sneaking in a soft-serve cone and small French fries break once in a while… one of the good things about adulting is you get to make those decisions! Plus, someone’s got to taste-test McDonald’s to make sure it’s still as good as you remember. Right?....right?

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