Friday, July 18, 2008

Unhappy Meals

A few Saturdays ago we went for lunch as a family at McDonald's. This is a real sore spot for me because I grew up being taught that McDonald's was the fast food chain of the devil. Okay, maybe not quite... but almost.

Before I had kids I had only had a McDonald's hamburger once. It was when I was about ten and my aunt took a bunch of us kids there as part of my cousin's birthday festivities. Then in high school, some of my friends would go there often for lunch. I wasn't the one driving and I always brought my lunch, so I didn't have a lot of say in where we went. But I wasn't about to pass up the opportunity to flaunt my upperclassman status by not leaving campus for lunch! I was cheap and typically teenage girlish in that I didn't want to eat big greasy hunks of meat, so I got a lot of dollar hot fudge sundaes. Because the saturated fats aren't as bad for you when they come covered in chocolate, right???

Since I've had kids, I've only had an entire McDonald's hamburger once. (I do not count repeated attempts at taking one bite of M's burger to try and figure out what all the fuss is.) The one time was when we were on a road trip with my in-laws and they stopped for the bathroom at McDonald's. While there, my mother-in-law picked up several burgers and passed them out. So apparently I'm on the "McDonald's burger about once every decade" plan. Look out Mickey Dee's, I'm due for another burger sometime in 2010. However, that doesn't mean I haven't BEEN to McDonald's fairly often.

You see, McDonald's has those "Playplaces." They must be some sort of elaborate mind-control system or psychological conditioning technique so that children will grow up inexplicably drawn to greasy burgers and hot tub sized soft drinks. Except I'm kidding of course. I know a lot of people out there have watched the highly unscientific Super Size Me "documentary" that jumps to various conclusions and therefore actually created a sort of religion out of hating McDonald's and how it's making America obese. I have a secret for you. Actually, Americans are making America obese by stuffing their cake holes with too much junk! I for one believe in grown-ups taking responsibility for their actions. Almost like they are capable of making legally binding contracts and other sundries. So the crap about McDonald's actually maliciously targeting the "kiddo sector" with their artery-clogging fare? Yah, not McDonald's fault. Whose fault? Still the grown ups.

Anyway, I digress. The Playplaces. They make my kids love McDonald's. I know it's the Playplaces because my kids only eat about three french fries before they claim they are done and want to go play. Obviously they're not that excited about the food. Left to my own fast food whims, my kids wouldn't even know to love McDonald's Playplaces because they would have never seen one. But we have friends. Friends we actually like to spend time with. And we live in Texas, where it's too hot in the summer to actually spend more than 0.00023 seconds outside at lunchtime and where there is a high probability of torrential rain pretty much any time of year. So what do friends ask us to go do on rainy and/or blisteringly hot days? Go to lunch at McDonald's.

I can't say no. All the other moms will think I'm so lame and granola or something. I don't want to offend them by telling them I think their choice is white trash and is symbolic of everything that is wrong with America. I also don't want to spend money buying lunch. And really, the extra $9.58 is what matters most to me, forget the crumbling of our society. But I can't say no. I'll tell myself it's a cultural experience, even if it's not exactly a culture where I want to be a regular. I tell myself to relax and live a little (or die a little, depending on whether you take a social or nutritional perspective...). I tell myself that I don't want to be the overly-snobby mom who doesn't let her kids have any fun or fit in. And we go.

And then we go the next time. And the next time. And pretty soon my kids love it and ask for it anytime we decide to go out for lunch. Then one day you wake up and realize you've become what you swore you'd never be: a mom who takes her kids to McDonald's.

On the other hand, if the kids like it, what's the big deal, right? It's somewhere we can all go as a family without spending too much money and we all have a nice time. Wrong, wrong, wrong! You see, McDonald's has a capacity to disappoint at levels which I never dreamed possible. I always want the problem to have been an isolated incident. But time and time again, McDonald's pulls out all the stops to really make me question my decision to come there. I'm starting to realize I need to let it go the way of other retail establishments that consistently make a poor showing.

Por ejemplo:

Am I the only one in the world that hates Happy Meal toys? They are worse than useless because my kids end up attached to them without ever actually playing with them. I mean, the toys usually break or don't actually do anything or, amazingly enough, manage to do both. When we went the other day, we got this one:

It has two buttons on the back that make the wings have "karate chop action." Sounds cool, right? Except for the fact that apparently "karate chop action" is actually "barely perceptible wiggling." Also, the legs are contorted in a weird configuration that makes them both hard to hold and impossible to stand the toy up on. The Flickr picture above must have been taken by someone because they were so proud they managed to balance the thing on it's legs, they had to prove it to the world before a mouse farted down the block and the thing fell back down.

So why, you ask, did we get the Happy Meal toys if we hate them so much? Well, for one thing, there isn't really a menu at McDonald's. Sure there's a listing of selected items. The "meals," the dollar menu, and a couple other things. You're left to guess what else they offer, in what other sizes, and at what price. Apparently if you don't frequent McDonald's enough to have the menu memorized and/or if you actually care how much money you spend and/or if you want something off-the-wall like a burger without fries, then they don't want you there. It's actually often impossible to find the food items my kids want listed on the menu except as part of a Happy Meal. It's also very difficult to figure out, but I suspect that you can actually save money by purchasing a Happy Meal. They offer smaller sizes that can only be obtained in conjunction with a Happy Meal. And it's not like my kids are going to eat more than three bites anyway.

Despite these challenges, we wanted to avoid Happy Meals just on principle. We wanted to do the unthinkable apparently: Order our kids food without getting a Happy Meal. We really, really tried. Apparently it is just not allowed. When you ask for a cheeseburger and chicken nuggets, they see that you have children with you and jump to the conclusion that you're ordering the cheeseburger Happy Meal and the chicken nuggets Happy Meal. I mean, when you order a burger at most places, they usually have the decency to check if you want the "meal" or just the sandwich. But I have children, so it was a forgone conclusion that I wanted crappy toys with which to fill up my house. We also ordered an Asian salad, some bigger burger that M wanted (like I remember or care what), 2 waters, 2 small drinks, 1 large fries, and 2 small fries. Now I suppose that two adults might want 2 waters AND 2 small drinks. And some adults might want 1 large fries and 2 small fries between the two of them (although it seems like we would have just ordered, say, 2 large fries instead). I think it was pretty obvious that 2 of the drinks and 2 of the fries were for our CHILDREN. I would have thought these other items we ordered made it clearer still that we did not actually use the words "happy" or "meal" at any time during the ordering process. In the end we got two Happy Meals (which come with drinks and fries), 4 more beverages, 3 more fries, a totally different burger than the one M ordered, and an Asian salad with vinaigrette dressing. So for the record, the only things we ordered that they didn't screw up were 2 waters and an order of large fries. We had a lot of fun getting the extra fries and drinks refunded (it was easier than trying to get it through their thick skulls that we didn't want the confounded Happy Meals), convincing them to swap M's wrong burger out for the right one, and asking for Asian dressing to go with my Asian salad. At which point the children were entirely bored with the idea of actually eating anything and were ready to go play. Does this stuff only happen to me???

Somehow it seems fitting that many Wal-Marts have a McDonald's inside...


Alison said...

Ohhh that is why we like Chic-fil-a. You can trade in your toy/book for a free ice cream cone!!! The lame little toys never make it to the car!

G said...

Nice idea, but then I would have to eat unremarkable chicken sandwiches with too much mayo. More importantly, my kids don't like anything but the ice cream at Chick-fil-A. The nuggets are too spicy for Claire (such a pansy!) and no matter how you talk them up, waffle fries don't classify as french fries in the world of Claire and Scott. Sigh...

Corbett Family said...

I share your hatred of McDonald's as I share your hatred of Wal-Mart. I always have issues with the food I order--yet we still go back (too many times on our road trip, but it was because of the play places). Fortunately for me, my kids love the food at Chick-fil-a and I like it too (and you can get fruit cups with decent fruit as a substitute for fries and tell them to hold the mayo on your sandwich), so we go there instead of McDonald's when it is an option.

Anonymous said...

i so need to tell you about my "someday soon I WILL open a business that you will flip out and come to like EVERYDAY"... ask me about it the next time we speak.

stampinashley said...

Agreed that it's an interesting coincidence that Walmarts have McDonalds in them...

I have all those same issues with McD's, but the only reason I really don't go there, is because I actually don't like ANY of their food. Their salads are OK, their chicken sandwiches are gross, I won't touch a fast food burger with a ten foot pole. So when we go there I am subject to choking down a snack wrap. -What kind of MEAL is that?!-

So, we eat at Chic-fil-A. And even on the occasion you choose to keep the toy, for us it's been a book. Something they can actually read, and LEARN from -heaven forbid! I totally dig their cool wraps (w/o dressing -uck) And to make up for Clair and Scott's dislike... My kids prefer the waffle fries over any!

Leann said...

Ok... well, first off all, I know your whole food thing. I mean, I had to help teach you ways of creamy american food. (not that I take credit for all of it)

McD's.. it is salty. and, well... that's it. I like salt, and that's about all they got going for me. However, I learned that they put beef bouillon in their french fries to make them saltier (have no idea if that is true or not), but since I have tried adding bouillon to my meals that I wanted more salt flavor and it totally works! I especially add it to stroganoff and Hawaiian haystack sauce.

Other than that, McD's are ewww, I'm am so sad for you that your kids are now hypnotized by the PlayPlaces. But as for your "does it only happen to you" question... probably 99.5% of the population would assume that by saying a cheeseburger and having a child would automatically mean a Happy Meal, and would probably write a blog on how stupid the people at McD's are, in order to think that they DIDN'T want a Happy Meal.

But alas, your are cursed as we are... We SAY what we MEAN and we MEAN what we SAY. But most Americans (the ones you can blame for their own obesity) don't really understand what they mean.

Matthew said...

So, I often wonder if it's not the establishment's fault. McDonalds certainly isn't that way in other countries. At least the ones I've been to (Peru and Romania). In other countries, there are no playplaces and they are run by 12 adults, not 5 teenagers. In fact, they have keypads on the restrooms so that you can only use them if you have a receipt with a code on the bottom. Part of me really wants to blame the way McDonalds is on the employees they hire. This might be true of your one-armed wal-fart employee too.