A Happy Meal, complete with toy, brings back memories for many college students. The Happy Meal turned 40 in June. Photo by Graham Shapiro.

Happy Birthday, Happy Meal

This past November, American fast-food chain McDonalds celebrated the 40th anniversary of its trademarked Happy Meal. Initially introduced in June 1979, the Happy Meal has been successfully marketed as a tasty treat parents can use to pacify their grumpy 3-year old. When you’re a kid, however, it is a feast unlike any other! 

Whether you ordered a cheeseburger or some chicken nuggets, everyone has fond memories of chowing down on a hot meal you don’t care to hear the nutritional facts about. All you really cared about was the toy that came with it. As McDonalds revives some of its most popular toys from the past 40 years to promote the event, students at Frederick Community College ponder the question — Do happy meals still make me happy?

Students like Cory Watson, who recalls his lack of concern regarding McDonalds’ menu choices. Watson said, “I wasn’t too picky, I just got whatever I felt like or whatever I saw first on the menu.” Originally, the selection included the choice between a hamburger or cheeseburger, a small side of french fries, and a small beverage. 

Over the years, the menu has expanded to include popular mainstays such as chicken nuggets, as well as healthier options like apple slices, Go-Gurt, and milk. “I remember when I was little, I had a cousin who worked at McDonalds who would give me stuff for free. So sometimes I would get the unhealthy option and the healthy option and just eat both,” said Watson.  

The Happy Meal functions as a method parents can use to provide their children with a quick hot meal to quell their appetites and their fussy attitudes. The marketing of the Happy Meal to parents emphasized the convenient aspects ordering a full meal for a child to get them to sit still for a minute.  Like Cory Watson’s parents who, according to Watson, “…would order it for me because I would rather run around and goof off.” 

McDonalds used a different tactic to market this product to kids. Namely, the toys which began as simple trinkets like a spinning top or a puzzle lock soon evolved into promotional tie-ins for hit movies, TV shows, and video games. The toys were and still continue to be a massive incentive for kids to ask their parents for a Happy Meal, to the point where some people are getting Happy Meals just to collect the toys. People like Patrick Williams who made an attempt to collect, “…any and all of them. Except for the ones made of cardboard, they get wet for two seconds and they’re automatically ruined.” Williams has such a fondness that he even recalls his favorite Happy Meal toys all these years later, “Bakugans! I would roll those around until they broke.” Some people like Watson would even look out for specific tie-ins to collect all the toys. “A lot of them were Pokemon or Mario, pretty much anything Nintendo,” he said. Though Watson does not have a specific favorite, he said, “They’re all just collectibles for the sake of memories.”

There is an aspect of nostalgia at play here. A desire to recapture the childlike wonder this product once invoked in all of us. It is at times such as this when we reminisce over our most positive memories associated with the product, “I was on a field trip in first or second grade, looking at historical sites around town. We went to McDonalds afterwards and I just remember being so excited that I was with all my friends and we were all getting Happy Meals together,” said Watson. 

Considering the stage of our lives that currently find ourselves transitioning into adulthood and grappling with the uncertainty beheld by the future, some of us consider these attempts to recapture those childhood feelings. “Maybe if there is a nostalgic factor to it, like it brings back childhood memories so maybe I might order it for that,” said Watson. 

It is then, unsurprising and perhaps even expected that there are those who continue to order Happy Meals for themselves into adulthood. “I got one last week,” said Williams. “It’s small, affordable and convenient. Plus it brings back nostalgia.” It can be assuring to know that for some, this method can lead to satisfaction. “I feel like it brings you more joy to get a Happy Meal now as an adult because you have the freedom to make that choice for yourself,” said Williams.

When was the last time you had a Happy Meal?  If you’re feeling nostalgic…there’s probably a McDonald’s just around the corner.

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