Toys turn healthy foods into ‘happy meals’

U. OREGON (US) — Kids are more likely to make healthy food choices at restaurants if those meals are paired with collectible toys, just as less nutritious fast-food options often are.

About 17 percent of U.S. children, ages 2 to 19 years, are obese, and toys that come with fast-food meals are cited as putting fatty, calorie-dense selections into the mouths of children. California has banned toys from fast-food kid meals, and New York and other states are considering following suit.

Missing from the debate are hard data on the influences that meal-deals actually have on children, particularly preschoolers, and whether toy offerings might be adjusted to encourage healthy eating.


A new study, published online in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, finds preschoolers, ages 2 to 5 years, can be influenced to prefer a healthy food choice—in this case, a meal of soup, mixed vegetables, and milk—when a toy is seen as one that is missing from their collectible set.

In addition, 73 percent of the participating parents reported that they would be okay with such an approach, whereas, 92 percent were strongly against the use of collectible toys with less healthy, fast-food meals.

“The study tells us that the inclusion of a collectible toy influences the children’s perceptions of how the food is going to taste, and whether they will like it,” says T. Bettina Cornwell, professor of marketing at the University of Oregon.

“What was interesting to us—even more than we expected—was that the presence of the collectible toy moved the healthier food option up to the point that it was just as likable as the fast-food offering.”

For the study, 85 preschoolers were shown cards with 18 different meal-deal images, all depicting foods not directly associated with known meals offered by any particular restaurant. Six of the meal combinations presented among distracting choices were two sets of three experimental choices: One set offered a heavily topped personal pizza, a side of fries, and a small soda, paired with either no toy, a toy truck defined as non-collectible, or a previously defined collectible monster; the other set featured the soup, veggies, and milk with the same three types of toys.

The toys, all about 1.5 inches tall, used in the study were chosen from among 11 possibilities in pre-testing to assure their appeal among children, whose age group generally is not tuned in to gender-specific toys. The trucks and monsters rose to the top with both boys and girls.

The study considered children’s preferences. As a child learned that certain meals would contain a collectible toy that he or she did not have yet, the anticipated taste and likability of those meals increased. Meals without any toys were less desirable. Those with collectible toys were the most appealing. When no-toy meals were shown, as expected, the fast-food offering was more positively regarded.

In the second experiment—with 56 different children, ages 3 to 5 years—another toy was included. It was part of a collection but not one that the children needed to finish out their set since they already owned the particular one. Again, the children’s ratings of perceived taste and likability favored the meals with collectible toys and, in particular, those meals with a toy that they needed to complete their set.

“This finding is compelling,” says Cornwell. “It speaks to a child’s motivation to collect and to the potential of repeated food offerings to influence the development of taste preferences.”

“The studies back up a growing body of evidence that children’s perceptions and food choices can be guided through the repeated exposure of certain types of food,” says co-author Anna McAlister, developmental psychologist at the University of Wisconsin.

“There is a good deal of debate about whether toys influence a child’s perception of a food,” Cornwell says. “These studies certainly support the idea that the presence of a toy in a meal deal can influence a child’s perception on how that food is going to taste—and how they are going to like it.”

The two-part study was conducted independently without support from industry or public funds.

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