How the McDonald’s Happy Meal Has Changed Over the Years
This fast food icon has endured some major twists and turns, and the journey isn’t over yet!
At first, you could order only the toy
Before the Happy Meal, there was the “Treat of the Week.” While the Happy Meal didn’t make a full appearance until the late ’70s, McDonald’s locations in Canada were already focused on what kids love best: toys! Each week, McDonald’s offered a different toy by request to their young diners, called “Treat of the Week.” Little did these clever innovators know that 50 years later, McDonald’s would be distributing 1.5 billion toys each year. Here are 11 surprising McDonald’s menu items you won’t find today.
It used to be called “Menu Ronald”
Although a man named Dick Brams in St. Louis is often credited with the original design of the Happy Meal, the real origin comes from a little farther south—Guatemala, to be exact. Yolanda Fernanández de Cofiño was a Chilean woman who married José María Cofiño, owner of all the McDonald’s franchises in Guatemala. Yolanda created her signature meal package for children, “Menu Ronald,” in the mid-1970s, which included a hamburger, small fries, and a sundae. Learn how to make famous McDonald’s menu items at home.
The packaging was inspired by cereal boxes
After hearing about de Cofiño’s “Menu Ronald,” McDonald’s commissioned advertiser Robert Bernstein to design a similar item for its American stores. Robert modeled the boxes after a lunch pail, with the golden arches as handles. Drawing inspiration from watching his son interact with the games and puzzles on the breakfast cereal box, Bob hired children’s illustrators to create panels of interactive games, jokes, and comics for the Happy Meal. In 1979, the Circus Wagon Box made its first appearance, packed with a cheeseburger or hamburger with fries, cookies, a drink, and a small toy. Happy Meals aren’t the only thing that has changed over the years. Find out what the McDonald’s menu looked like the year you were born!
You could collect big-screen characters
In 1979, McDonald’s launched its first Happy Meal promotion of a major motion picture. The lucky winner: Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Junior Trekkies would find games and comics inspired by the movie in their Happy Meals, but they had to buy multiple meals in order to complete their set. Check out these 11 McDonald’s menu items that totally failed.
The Chicken McNugget wasn’t always available
As the 1980s rolled in, America was off red meat, so McDonald’s introduced its iconic Chicken McNuggets as a leaner option. It was an instant hit—so much so that McDonald’s had problems keeping up with demand. It wasn’t for several years, in 1983, that McDonald’s was able to offer McNuggets nationwide, including inside every Happy Meal box. Prefer to make your own chicken tenders at home? Here’s our favorite brand.
Classic Disney movies made an appearance
In 1987, McDonald’s teamed up with Disney in an epic partnership. Happy Meals now included books, stickers, and toys that featured popular Disney characters. In time, Cinderella, Simba, the 101 Dalmatians, Aladdin, Nemo, and of course Mickey Mouse all made their appearances in the Happy Meal. Take a look at the first McDonald’s menu ever.
Teenie Beanie Babies took over
While the Happy Meal has had some popular guest stars in its package, nothing compares to the years of Ty Teenie Beanie Babies. In 1997, McDonald’s started to offer a miniature version of the popular beanie baby toy—and everyone lost their minds. That year, the fast food company sold 100 million of the toys and helped propel a collection craze that would last for more than a decade. Your Beanie Babies may not be worth much today, but these common vintage kitchen items could get you big bucks.
Healthier options were introduced
As childhood obesity increasingly became a national epidemic in the early 2000s, McDonald’s was under intense scrutiny, and even lawsuits, over the high calorie count and fat content inside its Happy Meals. To stymie falling sales and critics, in 2011 McDonald’s introduced healthier options, such as offering low-fat or skim milk and apple juice instead of soda, and adding apple slices to every Happy Meal. These healthy snacks are good for kids (and adults!) too.
The Happy Meal continues to transform
McDonald’s has done some serious revamping of its Happy Meal in the past two decades, but the changes won’t stop there. By 2022, the chain has committed to reducing the calories, added sugar, sodium, and saturated fat in all Happy Meal orders. With that, cheeseburgers will no longer be an option for kids.
As for the toys? McDonald’s may be going digital. Its 2013 McPlay mobile app allows kids to scan QR codes to get games, quizzes, and other digital content. As children get their own phones and tablets earlier and earlier, the small physical toy may become a thing of the past. Here’s the secret ingredient that makes McDonald’s fries so addicting.