Why We’re Eating Fewer Happy Meals

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Emile Wamsteker / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Kids are less likely to order kids meals now. For the past five years, there has been an annual decline in the number of fast-food child meals that come with toys. In 2011, Happy Meal and other child meal sales were down 6%, from 1.3 billion to 1.2 billion orders. Does this mean that parents are finally steering their kids away from fast food in the hopes of fostering healthier eating habits?

Perhaps. But that’s only part of the explanation for the decline of the Happy Meal.

Amid the larger war against obesity, fast food, and poor eating habits, fast-food restaurants’ efforts to attract children—even while they’re still in diapers—has drawn a healthy portion of attention. In California, lawsuits have been launched to stop McDonald’s from including toys with meals as a way to market to kids. Last spring, a campaign was being pushed to retire Ronald McDonald, the iconic clown who, fast-food opponents say, is hell-bent on the creepy mission of luring children into McDonald’s, where they’ll be fattened up and primed for a lifetime of regular fast-food dining visits.

Just this week, AdAge published a story comparing Ronald McDonald to Joe Camel, the once-ubiquitous cartoon character created to make smoking cigarettes look cool.

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To some extent, it looks like health and diet concerns are one of the reasons why, as a recent NPD Group report states, visits to fast-food chain restaurants in which child meals were purchased have dropped annually since 2007, including a 5% decline from 2010 to 2011. Note that the report doesn’t state that overall visits have declined, nor that kids’ visits have declined—just that orders of kids’ meals have steadily dropped.

As stories based on the report published in the Los Angeles Times and the Orlando Sentinel reveal, there are other factors at play here. One factor is simple economics: Parents have come to the conclusion that, when hitting a fast-food joint, it’s much more cost-effective to order off the dollar menu, or perhaps to split a regular sized meal among various family members. Per the LA Times:

Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst, agreed, noting that mothers have “probably switched to the value menu because it was cheaper than the kids meal.”

“I think there’s a lot to the idea of, ‘Let’s buy a big hamburger and cut it in half to share’ because of the economic situation,” said Barry Klein, a former McDonald’s advertising executive who now works as a marketing consultant.

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By ordering this way, the family gets more food for the money, albeit without any toy. That too seems like a plus to many parents: Honestly, who wants more cheap plastic, made-in-China toys in the house? Thanks to dollar-store visits, birthday party favors, and, of course, fast-food kids meals, most American households today are swimming in this stuff.

This isn’t to say that parents are actually standing up to their kids and calling the shots on who orders what. In both stories, the impression given is that it’s children who are deciding that they’ve outgrown and are too cool for kids’ meals. The families and analysts consulted indicate that kids as young as 5 or 6 just aren’t as interested in Happy Meals and the like as they once were. NPD’s analyst told the Sentinel:

“That’s not necessarily what kids today want,” said Bonnie Riggs, NPD’s restaurant analyst. “They’ve become more sophisticated in their palettes. They’re looking for smaller versions of some of the things mom and dad order.”

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To cover all bases, fast-food restaurants are putting more money toward marketing to every age group: The average preschooler sees 2.8 fast-food ads on TV daily, and kids of all ages are watching far more fast-food ads than they did a few years back.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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