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Changing the Way We Use Toys to Market Food to Children


It’s no secret that many top fast-food restaurants use toys or other premiums to sell their meals to children. But what may surprise you is that each year, nearly $2 billion is spent by U.S. food and beverage companies specifically on marketing to children, according to a new Issue Brief in Healthy Eating Research from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Premiums are non-food items sold in connection with any food product. Toys are one example of premiums―and the most popular. In 2009 alone, top fast-food chains used over half of the total amount spent on marketing to children, an astounding $341 million, on acquiring toys and other premiums. According to several previous studies cited in the brief, the use of such premiums to sell meals to children has been proven to affect both their food choices and overall preferences.

Encouragingly, the brief notes that pairing healthy meals with toys increases preschool children’s perception of the meal and their likelihood to choose a healthy meal. And what’s more, parents support this strategy to promote healthy eating.

“One promising strategy that has the potential to promote healthier choices appears to be regulations that require the use of toys only with meals that meet certain nutrition criteria,” Dr. Jennifer Otten, lead author and Leader, writes in the brief. She continues, “Early evidence indicates that such policies can encourage restaurants to make healthy changes to their overall food and marketing environments.”

The Issue Brief notes that as of 2012, more than half of the top restaurant chains didn’t have a single kids’ meal that met nutrition standards. This can be a problem, since on average children get 25 percent of their day’s calories from fast-food and other restaurants.

Some restaurants have updated their menu, marketing and premium practices on their own for the better―for example, McDonalds has reduced French fry portion sizes and added apple slices to their Happy Meals. However, Dr. Otten notes that, “Industry self-regulations mostly do not address the practice and appear to be inadequate.”

The Issue Brief offers further policy implications and suggestions on how to use the success of premiums to promote healthy eating. You can read the brief’s evidence, findings and suggestions here.

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