Photograph by Robyn Lee, Creative Commons 2.0
Photograph by Robyn Lee, Creative Commons 2.0

If You Give a Kid McDonalds

If you give a kid McDonalds…he’s going to ask for potato chips for breakfast.

So went my thinking at the beginning of this summer when my 6-year-old started asking questions about the Golden Arches. There’s a much-loved children’s book named If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (and its many sequels and progeny) that details the funny and vicious cycle that begins with the seemingly harmless act of giving a mouse a cookie.

He’ll ask for a glass of milk, then he’ll want a straw, then a napkin, etc. The cookie leads to all sorts of unexpected consequences until finally the mouse gets thirsty again and asks for a glass of milk and then, both completing the old and starting a new cycle, requests a cookie. It never ends. You had no idea what you were getting into. And it all started with just giving a mouse a cookie.

Truman has lived for six (six and a quarter, he will remind you) years without eating McDonald’s. I know that millions of people eat at McDonald’s each day and to my sensibility it’s important not to shun that kind of huge food influencer on the world stage. According to The United States Department of Agriculture, children consume more calories per day at fast food restaurants than at school. But when it comes to making a personal decision about where to eat, McDonald’s doesn’t make my list.

It’s not an unbreakable rule; if a friend’s mom ever brought him there, I wouldn’t send him with a hard-boiled egg and kale chips. McDonald’s (and its brethren) didn’t even occur to Truman until he got into baseball last year and started seeing commercials for it during games. Then his favorite team gave away shirts emblazoned with the Golden Arches, conjuring the “pester power” the Federal Trade Commission documented in its 2012 report on food marketing to children and adolescents (required reading for anyone who interacts with kids).

God help me if Truman ever finds out that some meals come with toys. I know first hand the power of gift-with-purchase; my makeup drawer is filled with Pepto-pink lipsticks and tiny clumpy mascara samples.

But my concern as the mother of one child with no wiggle room for error to experiment on this one and apply earned wisdom to the next, is that one trip to McDonald’s will be the top of the slippery slope to decades of lifestyle-related illness. Giving my kid McDonald’s will start his headlong spiral into decades of highly sophisticated food engineering and market-researched balances of fat, sugar, and salt.

That delicious trifecta satisfies primal hungers dating back to when humans were in constant danger of starving. Some companies’ research has perfected fat, sugar, and salt combinations to pinpoint areas of my child’s developing brain to create neural pathways and preferences for such food that will be with him for the rest of his life. And lower his IQ. And I panic.

From the day he was born, I’ve taken stewardship of my son’s palate. He’s still young, and the amount of junky food thrown at him is pretty shocking. I expect and rejoice in pizza and cake at birthday parties. (I’m not a witch.) But individually wrapped highly processed cookies as an after-sports snack still baffles me. What happened to the roughly cut orange slices of the 1980s?

Of course I also know that there might be an upside—that if you give a kid McDonald’s, it loses its mystique. Many a teenager has advised me that the kid who gorges on junk food is the kid who was never allowed to have it at home, much like the kid who goes to college without ever having a drink is the one who dies of alcohol poisoning the first weekend. Honestly one of the reasons we don’t keep chips and the like in the house is because I would probably eat them all, which I attribute a little to growing up food insecure for part of my childhood.

Either way, I’ll turn over the reins of his food decisions to him eventually (and sooner than I think) and the best way to do that is, as with many responsibilities, gradually and with an adult around to model behavior. I’m not sure if I would do the same with alcohol; part of me feels like he should have to sneak around like the rest of us. But I’m a McDonald’s teetotaler and haven’t been there in…15 years? 20? Will I even recognize the menu?

So I’ve decided to visit McDonald’s with my son and let him order anything he wants. And we’ll see how it goes.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.