Like many mothers, Monet Parham wants to feed her daughter one thing, but the girl often wants to eat something else.
It's the unhappy battle over the Happy Meal and Parham, mother of two and a health educator, said it's a fight she just can't win.
"I can tell them 'No' all day long, but then they see commercials that convince them you've really got to have this," Parham said. Her 6-year-old daughter Maya especially likes the toys that come with McDonald's Happy Meals. With a smile, the first grader says opening a Happy Meal is like "a birthday present."
So now Parham plans to join the Center for Science in the Public Interest in filing a lawsuit today against the fast food giant to force them to either offer lower-calorie meals or get rid of the enticing trinkets.
The city of San Francisco recently banned Happy Meals toys as the latest blow in what has become an increasingly decisive issue: just who is responsible for what kids eat?
"I object to the fact that McDonald's is getting into my kids' heads without my permission and actually changing what my kids want to eat," Parham said in a CSPI statement announcing the lawsuit.
Some, including former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, said watching what kids eat is the parent's duty.
"Should it be the government or should it be the parents?" Palin said in recent speech. "It should be the parents."
But others, like Michael Jacobson of the CSPI, said it's not a fair fight.
"I wish Sarah Palin would start criticizing McDonald's and some of the other companies for these manipulative marketing tricks," Jacobson said.
Fast food companies spent more than $520 million on advertising and toys for Kids Meals, according to a 2006 report by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. Of that, $350 million went to toys alone.
"McDonald's knows that kids like toys more than they like the burgers, so they dangle these little toys in front of kids to pester their parents to take them to McDonald's," Jacobson said. "It's a trick that works. It's unfair to kids, they are being totally manipulated and it's unfair to parents who have the company going behind their back using this toy trick to get their kids to pester them."
McDonald's: 'We Listen to Our Customers'
McDonald's has not seen the lawsuit Parham plans to file, but when the CSPI threatened a lawsuit this summer, the company said they already have lower-calorie Happy Meal options and "couldn't disagree more with the misrepresentation of our food and marketing practices."
In a response to a possible lawsuit from the CSPI, McDonald's posted a statement on its website in July.
"When CSPI refers to America's children as 'an unpaid drone army,' you similarly denigrate parents and families, because they are fully capable of making their own decisions. You should apologize," the statement said. "At McDonald's, we listen to what our customers tell us. For the past 30 years they have told us -- again, overwhelmingly -- that they approve of our Happy Meal program. Three decades provide a lot of listening time. That's why we are confident that parents understand and appreciate that Happy Meals are a fun treat, with right-sized, quality food choices for their children."
In their statement announcing the lawsuit, the CSPI acknowledged that McDonald's does provide some lower calorie meal options, but said that "only a handful fall under that threshold -- and even those have more than one-third a day's worth of sodium."
McDonalds Statement on 'GMA' Report
After "Good Morning America" aired our report about the coming lawsuit from Parham and the CSPI, McDonalds issued a statement in response. Read the statement in full below:
Statement From McDonald's on CSPI Lawsuit
We are proud of our Happy Meals and intend to vigorously defend our brand, our reputation and our food.
We stand on our 30 year track record of providing a fun experience for kids and families at McDonald's.
We listen to our customers, and parents consistently tell us they approve of our Happy Meals. We are confident that parents understand and appreciate that Happy Meals are a fun treat, with quality, right-sized food choices for their children that can fit into a balanced diet.