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“Oooooh, ‘ook! McDonalds!” cried Little Nephew in a frenzy of excitement, his Thomas The Tank Engine wellies overhanging his car seat and drumming on the dashboard. “Yes” sighed The Boyfriend and I indulgently. “McDonalds.” And then, “But we’re going to Savacentre, aren’t we?”.
They say that some ridiculous percentage of children under four recognise the golden arches long before they tune into any other branding and I for one believe that. I hate the place and the way they somehow ply their horrible, sticky, unhealthy food and associate it with fun. The Boyfriend and I avoided hundreds of McDonalds as we trekked across Europe and I’ve only been in there once in about seven years. Until yesterday. A horrible wet bank holiday Monday, when we were down to babysit.
Earlier in the week there’d been plans in place, we would go to the zoo in glorious sunshine. But we had no money, we needed food for dinner, The Boyfriend had taken an eternity over getting Little Nephew dressed and now we were going to Savacentre in the rain. It was midday and Little Nephew was running close to dinnertime. We splashed in the puddles as we crossed the car park, wondering why The Boyfriend hadn’t planned on a coat.
I’ve campaigned against McDonalds on San Francisco beach, I begged my mum to buy me the Anti-McDonalds T-shirts. I admired those two troublemakers and signed petitions to support their McLibel case. I lecture other people on the evils of eating overpriced fat filled rubbish and I found it unbelievable that ‘Supersize Me’ could have any bearing on reality. We were even at Savacentre to buy avocado and watercress, not at Iceland buying 99p turkey twizzlers.
The Helicopter kiddie ride at the door was already occupied. We took too long getting around the store because we didn’t know it well enough. In the trolley, out the trolley, want to walk, want to sit here. Crisps. No. “Have I got all of ‘is at home then?” Spaghetti comes in Scooby Doo, Spongebob, Thomas. And a big Balamory tin, enough to feed all of Balamory.
Remember kids birthday parties at McDonalds? Sticky reserved tables set out in the plastic shell of a boat and food that no-one wanted to eat served up in cardboard. Teenage years, drinking chocolate milkshake and meeting boys there on a Saturday Morning. Chip fights upstairs until the staff shouted at you. Saying you wanted it to take away and then running round the corner and eating in because it was cheaper. Getting older and people at school leaving to work in McDonalds – “an Area Manager gets Ł15,000 and a company car”. The variety of McDonalds up and down the country where everything looks the same, from town centre location to drive-through.
If you’ve ever seen a tired, hungry, damp child stomp a Babybel (still in its wrapper) clean through the mesh on the bottom of a trolley, then you’ll understand where we were coming from. “Please, please, we can go to McDonalds * but * only if you’re good”. He sat silently, smiling in the baby seat of the trolley and peace reigned as we put the shopping in the car. “I’m not ready” The Boyfriend sobbed quietly, “I can’t manage a child”.
At College, our NUS cards had entitled us to a free burger regardless of what you ordered in McDonalds. This was a faultless piece of marketing, getting cash strapped students through the door everyday. I remember standing outside our English lecture, a group of us in flares and sweaters talking meaningfully about the war that had broken out in Bosnia and Serbia. A guy I really respected spoke up to say that there had “never in history been a war between two countries with a McDonalds before”. We contemplated this in silence as though McDonalds was the mark of civilisation.
The Bank Holiday McDonalds was packed with sodden grumpy people and small children. The queue was monstrous and it was agreed that The Boyfriend would do the manly hunter gatherer thing and get the food. I saw my opportunity and dashed across the floor with Little Nephew, managing to secure the only empty table and narrowly beating a scowling couple. Shamefully, I took advantage of Little Nephew and pulled a “look, I’ve got a kid here and he needs to sit” look. The table was in the window and the seats were cushioned. Not bad. An elderly employee with short hair (so, not just teenagers) cleared the rubbish from the previous occupants. She chatted to Little Nephew, telling him how she was cleaning and he seemed quite intrigued. As she moved away, he pointed to her and asked if she was a little boy.
What do I eat in McDonalds? It used to be that there was nothing for me as a vegetarian. They eventually phased in a horrible veggie burger in the UK which disintegrated and tasted of slush. On holiday in America, I asked for a burger. With. No. Meat. I thought perhaps they’d have had it there first? Aren’t they supposed to be ten years ahead? Eventually they produced an empty bap and shrugged. Times haven’t moved on much, even now their salad range contains meat.
The Boyfriend came over to the table, out of breath and with a large paper bag on a tray. We had a coke to share, he had a cheeseburger and a chicken burger. Little Nephew had a Happy Meal and I had a Deli Wrap. A soft brown bread roll with vegetables, this looked pretty appetising. I was quite impressed with this addition to the McDonalds menu, although I question how the vegetables were cooked. Dripping with oil, it seemed entirely possible that they’d been deep fried.
Pleased with my choice, I turned to see what was in Little Nephew’s Happy Meal. Didn’t they now make these with bags of fruit and baby carrots? I’m sure I’d seen healthy choices advertised for this. I pulled open the cardboard box and he swiftly tipped it out. I’d managed to get napkins down on the table so the food wouldn’t touch it. There were three tiny and horrid looking nuggets of processed chicken and a salty little bag of chips. The rest of the box was taken up with a huge plastic toy that was too far above his age range to be appreciated.
I reached my arm around him and he snuggled into me with one salty hand on my leg as he ate my chips. I looked down at those big brown eyes and told him out loud that this was completely against my principles, that I wasn’t sure I could live with myself for feeding him this rubbish. The Boyfriend knows how I feel about this, he was laughing at me through his cheeseburger.
This ‘meal’, eaten in the ‘restaurant’ cost us Ł11.49. So, at pricey old Pret A Manger we could have had; a ‘More than Mozarrella, No Bread Sandwich’ plus an Avocado Wrap, Ham Cheese and Mustard Sandwich, Smoked Salmon and a couple of Lemon Cheesecakes for that price. McDonalds isn’t cheap. So why am I using Pret as a comparison? Because both Pret and McDonalds are owned by the same corporation, Pret serving handmade, fresh, additive free food and McDonalds serving, well, rubbish.
I once got a lift home from university with a fat guy who navigated by McDonalds. After several wrong turns we saw the mock Tudor one on the outskirts of Oxford and breathed a sigh of relief. Even now, if I’m too late home to cook dinner, I know Dad goes to McDonald’s on the way to my Grandma’s. There’s always “one on the way”, isn’t there? But I get cross with Dad going there, “don’t eat that rubbish!” I moan, “it only takes two minutes to make a healthy sandwich.” It’s full of fat, salt and other hideous substances and this is what worried me about feeding it to Little Nephew.
Looking at the recommended daily allowances on the back of the little paper bags, Little Nephew was eating a combined 60% of the daily salt amount intake for a girl aged 4-7 who did an hours exercise every day. And he’s two. I was relieved when he flung one of the nuggets on the floor. The Boyfriend and I pored over the paper overlay on the tray. The back contained some pretty telling nutritional information about all the meals on offer. Oh, they can dress this up with icons, bright colours and pictures of healthy people doing exercise, but they can’t fool me. This isn’t food.
I stuffed down the remaining chips in an attempt to save Little Nephew. I would like it to be noted that he did at least ‘enjoy this as part of a balanced diet’ as recommended. He’d had a big bowl of healthy cereal for breakfast and he went on to eat grapes, blueberries and two petit filous yoghurts. He went home to his Mummy for a proper dinner.
So, how did having McDonalds make us feel? I’d only had a deli wrap and it wasn’t just the guilt that was making me feel sick and bloated. The Boyfriend looked pale and sleepy and Little Nephew struggled with the walk back to the car, dozing in his baby seat to the 30th rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. I didn’t notice any hyperactivity on his part and he’s so sweet and well behaved that additive triggered bad behaviour seems impossible. I kissed his little golden head and he told me he loved me.
He's old enough to get into his baby seat on his own, wipe his own nose, even put his washing up in the sink without being asked. But he's not really old enough to choose his own food. McDonalds has the pester power vote, but is it all it’s cracked up to be? Perhaps if you’re lucky enough to have a bright, happy, healthy child you shouldn’t poison them with this stuff. We had a lovely day with the little angel and really enjoyed ourselves, but next time it’s a picnic at the zoo. Honest.