Time to (grudgingly) give McDonald’s some credit

Ian Mendes admits that it's time to give McDonald's credit for improvements made to kids' Happy Meals.

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The book Lily received in her Happy Meal. Photo: Ian Mendes

Follow along as Ottawa-based sports reporter Ian Mendes writes about the joys of raising daughters, Elissa and Lily, with wife, Sonia.

Let’s start this week’s blog with a fun little multiple choice trivia question.

Do you know who is the largest toy distributor in the world?
a) Toys “R” Us
b) Walmart
c) Amazon.com
d) McDonald’s

Believe it or not, the answer is actually McDonald’s. But after putting some thought into the question, it actually makes sense when you consider the popularity of the Happy Meal. Each year, McDonald’s hands out more than 1.5 billion toys to kids around the world inside their Happy Meals. (And, in a related statistic, there are 1.5 billion parents who suffer cuts on their feet after stepping on the crappy toys while coming down the stairs.)

But last weekend I took Lily to McDonald’s and, instead of getting a toy with her lunch, she ended up with a book. For the first half of this month, McDonald’s replaced the toy inside their Happy Meal with a book to coincide with National Family Literacy Day on November 1.

Read more: Top 100 children’s books >

It’s interesting to note that McDonald’s chose four different books that focus on the importance of healthy eating habits for kids. And on some levels this does seem to be dripping of irony, as if Walmart started distributing books on how to run a successful small business.

The book Lily received was called Deana’s Big Dreams, and it’s the story of a dinosaur that finally got the strength to do what she wanted after she started eating the right foods. The turning point in the story shows the dinosaur surrounded by fruit, vegetables and low-fat milk.

This seems like a stark departure for the McDonald’s empire.

Read more: Snacks: 10 healthy store-bought options >

In the past, the company would just team up with the most popular Hollywood movie and slap together a cheap toy to put inside the Happy Meal. And, after a couple of days, that Monsters Inc. Mike Wazowski toy would lose its eye and everybody would just forget about it — until you accidentally stepped on it a few days later.

But this latest move by the McDonald’s marketing department is pretty smart, and we have to grudgingly give them some credit. In the months ahead, they are going to include a new free ebook every month with their Happy Meal app. And if you’ve bought your child a Happy Meal recently, you’ll notice they have reduced the size of the fries, started serving yogurt and offered an option for apple slices, too. I’m not quite ready to give them the Heart & Stroke check mark of approval, but considering most parents view Happy Meals as the gateway drug to the fast-food world, this is a step in the right direction.

I know a lot of parents won’t be satisfied until Happy Meals include quinoa salad with a handmade wooden toy, but quite frankly those are the people who would never take their kids to McDonald’s in the first place.

But for those parents like me who like to occasionally take their kids to McDonald’s, I can feel a little less guilty now about buying them a Happy Meal.

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