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The History of McDonald’s Happy Meals

McDonald’s Happy Meals were created by Bob Bernstein, an advertising executive tasked with reestablishing McDonald’s waning appeal to kids and families in the 1970s. He came up with the idea for the Happy Meal box while watching his young son eat cereal. He noticed that his son always read over the box each day to entertain himself while he ate. So Bernstein and his team created a kid’s meal box that utilized the McDonald’s golden arches as handles and featured puzzles, riddles, games, and comic strips printed on the outside to entertain kids while they ate. Illustrators from all around the US worked on the initial design. The name “Happy Meal” came from a 1960s McDonald’s jingle that called the restaurant a “happy place.” In 1977, the McDonald’s Happy Meal debuted at McDonald’s franchise stores in Kansas City, Denver, and Phoenix as a promotional item. It featured a regular-sized burger, fries, Keebler cookies, a soda, and a Cracker Jack surprise toy all packaged inside the box Bernstein and his team had masterminded. After testing for over a year, the Happy Meal went national in 1979. It was priced at $1.10, was circus wagon-themed, and among the first featured toys were a McDoodle stencil, a spinning top, and erasers. It was advertised as “food and fun in a box.” Later that same year, McDonald’s debuted the first movie tie-in Happy Meal when Star Trek: The Motion Picture debuted. It took some time for franchise owners to embrace the Happy Meal, but they eventually got on board (it helped that as the toys in the meal helped popularize it, sales skyrocketed). In 1984, Chicken McNuggets were added to the meals. Soon toys became the main appeal, rather than the box itself. McDonald’s became one of the largest toy distributors in the country and began working with Hollywood studios and major toy companies like Mattel to create special toys for limited-time Happy Meals. In the 1990s, Beanie Babies, Transformers, Power Rangers, and Disney-themed Happy Meal toys were hugely popular. (Today, many vintage McDonald’s toys are bought and sold by collectors on eBay and similar sites.) While the Happy Meal has played a massive part in McDonald’s success with families, the nutritional value of the meals (and using toys to incentivize kids to want them) has long been criticized. In the 2010s, McDonald’s made several changes to the Happy Meal, including reducing the portion of fries, removing soda, and adding apples to the meal. McDonald’s Happy Meals continue to be massively popular today.

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