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Unhappy News about Happy Meals

You’re a busy parent. Sometimes dinner time creeps up and catches you by surprise. When you find yourself serenaded by a chorus of rumbling tummies, there’s an overwhelming temptation to resort to takeaway. McDonald’s Happy Meals seem to tick all the right boxes: They’re convenient, attractively packaged and available everywhere. Best of all, they come with the added bonus of a toy to soothe even the most savage of beasts. However, if a Happy Meal is your go-to food fix for your hungry toddler, you’re in for a rude shock. Brace yourself for unhappy news… A Happy Meal isn’t everything it is cracked up to be.

Your toddler’s daily energy requirements

The Commonwealth Government’s Department of Health website provides some helpful tools to assist you to calculate the recommended daily intake of kilojoules and nutrients of your child. You can find them here.

We’ve used them as the basis for our calculations and we’ve also chosen to focus on the energy and nutritional requirements of three year olds (toddlers) as compared to what’s on the average McDonald’s Cheeseburger Happy Meal.


Toddlers have some pretty specific energy requirements. If you have a moderately active three year old girl weighing approximately 15kg, her daily energy requirement is around 5,945 kilojoules (kJ). If you have a moderately active three year old boy weighing 18kg his daily energy requirement is slightly higher, at 6,876kJ. So, how does that compare to the average Happy Meal comprising a cheeseburger, small fries and a small coke?

According to McDonalds, a Happy Meal contains 2678 kJ. If you compare this to your three year old’s recommended daily energy intake, that equates to 38.95% of their daily energy requirement (male three year old) or 45.05% (female three year old). That’s a pretty big chunk out of their recommended daily energy intake by anyone’s standards.

But that’s not all. Feed them a Happy Meal and you’ll effectively blow their daily recommended intake of protein, sodium (salt), sugar and fat out of the water too.

Happy Meal nutritional value

Happy Meals and protein

Your three year old’s recommended daily intake (RDI) of protein is 14 grams. At 17.9 grams, a Happy Meal significantly exceeds your child’s RDI.

Sodium (salt)

Happy Meal nutrition chips
2-4 times their sodium RDI

At three years of age, your child’s recommended daily intake of sodium is 200-400mg a day. Compare that to a Happy Meal which contains 930mg of sodium. That’s between two to four times their RDI of sodium.


It’s often said that sugar should be less than 10% of a person’s daily intake of kilojoules. Taking into account the fact that a three year old girl’s daily energy requirement is 5,945 kJ and a three year old boy’s is 6,876 kJ, they should not consume more than 594kJ and 687kJ in sugar respectively.

The average Happy Meal contains 30.2g sugar, most of which is in the small coke. If a teaspoon is roughly 4 grams sugar, that’s roughly 7½ teaspoons of sugar! When you think about it this way, if a teaspoon of sugar is between 65-68kJ, that amounts to anything between 487.5 to 510 kJ worth of sugar in a Happy Meal.

Breaking it down this way, you can see that in one meal alone, your child has consumed more than enough sugar for the entire day.


It’s also suggested that toddlers (under 4) should get no more than 30-35% of their daily kilojoule intake from fats. Taking that into account, your three year old daughter should not consume more than a maximum of 2080.75kJ in fat and your three year old son should not consume more a maximum of 2406.60 kJ in fat.

Fat is considered to be the most dense form of energy at 37 kJ a gram. When you consider that there’s 26.1 grams of fat in a Happy Meal that equates to 965.7kJ worth of fat. To summarise, in one meal, you’ve given them roughly half of their recommended daily maximum intake of fat.

Also, your Happy Meal (cheeseburger, small fries and small coke) contains 7.7g is saturated fats, the unhealthiest type of dietary fat, linked to obesity, heart disease and diabetes later in life.

Unhappy News about Happy Meals

Happy Meals and moderation

Naturally, McDonalds stress the importance of consuming their food in moderation and as part of a well-balanced diet. They also provide a range of healthier alternatives that can be substituted for the traditional contents of a Happy Meal, so that’s certainly a step in the right direction. I’d love some research showing how many parents who choose to buy McDonald’s meals, actively choose a ‘healthier’ option!

If one thing is clear, it’s the importance of getting to know your child’s daily and nutritional requirements and then using that knowledge to actively monitor what they’re eating… Remember if they are filling up on fat, sugar and salt, they will have no room left for their fruit, vegetable, wholegrains and dairy requirements. Learn more about reading the information on the labels on the food you’re giving to your kids here. Food for thought, eh?

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Janine Mergler

Janine Mergler is a veteran Queensland teacher, graduating from QUT with a BEd majoring in Social Sciences. After many years in the classroom, Janine moved on to academia. She has proudly trained new generations of teachers in her role as a lecturer at Queensland University of Technology Faculty of Education. She has also worked in the Queensland Government as an education specialist, developing education resources and delivering community awareness programs to help families conserve water. Currently she is the owner and editor of Families Magazine, a publication specifically targeted at parents who value a quality education for children.  Janine leads a team of professionals who write about family lifestyle, early childhood, schools and education information and family-friendly events.

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