The Happy Meal Turns 30

Filed under: Nutrition: Health, In The News, Mealtime

The McDonald's Happy Meal is turning 30. Introduced in 1979, this staple of kid-friendly fast-food is now as recognizable as the McDonald's brand itself. The idea of the Happy Meal is so simple: A hamburger, fries and soda served in a cardboard box with a small toy. But it's not the box -- or the food -- that makes the Happy Meal iconic. It's the toys.

McDonalds Happy Meal Turns 30

    The original Circus Wagon Happy Meal box. The Happy Meal was introduced in 1979, and celebrates it's 30th birthday this year.


    Over the years, McDonald's has teamed up with various movie studios for tie-ins that promoted both hamburgers and entertainment. This ET Happy Meal box is from 1985.


    In 1990, McDonald's introduce the first Barbie Happy Meal.


    Barbie isn't the only doll to show up in a Happy Meal box; in 2002, this Madame Alexander toy made an appearance at McDonald's.


    In honor of the 30th birthday of the Happy Meal, McDonald's and Ty have teamed up to bring back the Teenie Beanie Babies plush toys. From July 17 to August 13, the toys will be available in a special-edition Happy Meal; customers will receive one of 30 Teenie Beanie Babies plush toys with the purchase of a Happy Meal at participating McDonald's restaurants (while supplies last).


The Happy Meal toys are, of course, a stroke of marketing genius. Kids -- and the occasional adult -- will buy meal after meal in an effort to collect all of the toys in a series. And while this results in a lot of plastic Transformers in the back of Mom's car, in some cases, all those Happy Meals pay off: Some of the toys have become collectibles. The most popular Happy Meal item was the Teenie Beanie Babies. According to ABC News, McDonald's sold 100 million Happy Meals featuring the Ty stuffed toy in 1997, sparking "a national craze."

And there's money in Happy Meal toys, too, at least for some people: 11-year-old Luke Underwood of Notts, England, sold his Happy Meal toy collection at auction this spring for $11,000. That's a lot of French fries!

The toys in a Happy Meal aren't necessarily meant to be collectors items, though; they're intended for kids to play with, and carefully screened for safety. But while the toys aren't harmful, what about the food?

The meals offered in the modern Happy Meal are more balanced than those offered in 1979. Now parents can choose Chicken McNuggets instead of a burger, or apples with caramel dipping sauce instead of french fries. Cindy Good, McDonald's director of nutrition, tells ABC News that while the 1979 Happy Meal had 600 calories, today's "most popular Happy Meal [consists of] four-piece chicken McNuggets, apple dippers low fat caramel dip and 1 percent low fat milk," which totals just 375 calories. Not bad for an every-so-often take-out treat.

What's your favorite part of the Happy Meal -- the toy or the food? Or do you steer clear of the whole thing?

Brett Singer is the editor-in-chief of You can follow his tweets at

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.