We visited McDonalds in Dundee for lunch today to review its child-friendliness for the Soil Association, as part of its Out To Lunch campaign. They’re spending the summer, along with an army of parent volunteers, assessing whether big chain restaurants:
- Provide fresh, good quality food you can trust
- Make it easy for you to choose healthy food
- Welcome children and accommodate parents’ needs
I had mixed feelings being assigned McDonalds, having been thoroughly scunnered of Happy Meals after eating there 3 times over Easter, but was game to give it a try again because it was next door to the cinema that I took the minxes to today, as a Mid Summer Holidays
Walking through the door, I found some floor-to-ceiling touch-screen order screens. Wow! So I can avoid that excruciating wait for 3 minxes to decide on their order after changing their minds a thousand times once we’ve finally reached the cash desk / server? The screens were easy to navigate, and even Mini Minx could understand what she could and couldn’t include in her Happy Meal. Maxi got in a flap trying to remember all the options open to her, and had to check the big menu (that didn’t actually include every option) at the front above the sole till operator. And I felt you had to already know what healthy options (side salad, carrot sticks, fruit bag) were available in order to be able to find them.
Anyway, we ordered and paid for the food no problem, and I despatched the minxes off to find a table while I loitered in the main lobby waiting on my order like most of Dundee, blocking people who wanted to place their order with (shock-horror) a real, live person. I think the delay from entering the door to getting your food was comparable to the queueing system they had before. But we parents waiting on having our food delivered actually spoke to each other (“Are those screens new? What’s the point of them? Is it faster? Load of rubbish. New, new, new. Don’t like it”). Which is more than we did with McDonald’s staff – I made a point of asking some servers and cleaners questions, but if I hadn’t, the minxes and I could have easily swanned in and out without speaking to any of the staff. That’s such a shame, because every staff member at McDonalds that I spoke to today (or ever, actually) has been polite, friendly and helpful.
The food was pretty much what you expect of McDonalds – all the fun is in the unwrapping of parcels than in savouring and eating the food itself. So I distracted myself looking around the restaurant. There was a long table filled with tablets that played computer games. Yes, they had tenuous links to food (“Help Granny Smith get her apples back from thieves”), but what were they for? Entertaining kids while their parents loitered at the serving desk? Or distracting them while they shovelled bland calories down their faces without really noticing what they were eating? I asked a member of staff what the Magic Tables were, signposted at each end of the restaurant. He said that when the projectors above them originally worked, he thought they projected fish ponds onto the table-tops that responded to people moving their hands over it. It sounded fun! And it also sounded like another way for families to get through an entire meal without noticing what they were eating or talking to each other.
After the minxes’ initial excitement at being allowed to eat and drink whatever they wanted had subsided (“Mummy, can I really have a fruit shoot?” “We’re not on Netmums, so aye – fill your boots, wee Daughter”), I asked them how their visit could have been better.
“There were no colouring-in sheets”, said Maxi, “But the crayon drawer was overflowing. What’s the point of that?” (Maybe they’d be tasty deep-fried treats…?)
“They should have Magic Tables on every table!” Midi reckoned. I disagree; I prefer the minxes to look at their food, think about what they’re eating and notice how their bodies are responding to that food. Then they can stop when they have Happy Tummies (ie are full) rather than when the feeling of being fit to burst finally surfaces into their consciousness.
I asked how their food could have been better.
“It was too plain,” said Maxi. “It would have been loads better if they’d used herbs and spices to give it richer flavours. There was too much emphasis on meat, cheese and carbs”. I pointed out that she could have chosen anything off the menu, even non-Happy Meal items. Indeed, I’d encouraged her to look. So was her criticism fair? “Yes, because the portion sizes for everything apart from Happy Meals are too big for me, and you don’t let me waste food”. True.
Midi noted that there were only 3 fish-fingers in her Happy Meal portion and that she’d wanted 5. “And there weren’t enough carrot sticks”, added my hungry 7 year old.
Mini didn’t offer an opinion on either question, being too impressed with her cheap plastic Minion toy to concentrate on what I was asking. Though I noticed that she’d left half her plain cheeseburger.
Will I go back? As things stand just now, no. McDonalds is hard to beat in terms of obtaining hot, cheap, fast food. But I feel that the subliminal message a restaurant that’s designed to appeal to children is sending is totally wrong: look at all the whizz-bang electronic things you can play with your entire visit that’ll distract you from your surrounding fellow humans and from what you’re actually throwing down your face. We won’t let your kin, strong flavours, challenging textures or even thinking get in the way of you lulling yourself into mindless sheep-sleep.
I’d rather go hungry and keep my wits about me.