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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!

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 Two children eating hamburgers in McDonalds Jackson/Evening News/REX/Shutterstock

At First, You Could Only Order 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. 

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Gdansk, Poland - February 21, 2018: Happy meal with Coca-Cola, french fries and cheeseburger.; Shutterstock ID 1031907622; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): Taste of HomeShutterstock/Robson90

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 further south. Guatemala, to be exact. Yolanda Fernanández de Cofiño was a Chilean woman who married José 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.

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mcdonald's circus wagon

The Packaging Was Inspired By Cereal Boxes

After hearing about Yolanda’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!

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Recreation of a scene from the 1960s television science fiction show Star Trek, where Captain Kirk Doctor McCoy & Mr. Spock beam down to the planet surface Shutterstock / Willrow Hood

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.

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mcnuggetShutterstock / shutterdandan

The Chicken McNugget Wasn’t Always Available

As the 1980s rolled in, America was off red meat. So, McDonald’s introduced their 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 at home? Here’s our favorite brand.

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The sign for a Disney retail store in York, on 26th August 2015Shutterstock / chrisdorney

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.

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mcdonald's teenie beanies

Teenie Beanie Babies Took Over

While the Happy Meal definitely had some popular guest stars in its package over the years, 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, they sold 100 million of the toys and helped propel a collection craze that would last for over a decade.

Your Beanie Babies may not be worth much today, but these common vintage kitchen items could get you big bucks!

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Exterior shot of a McDonald's restaurant.Shutterstock / Jeff Bukowski

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, like 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.

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BANGKOK,THAILAND - JANUARY 9,2018 : Happy meal set on desk ,in soft focus, with blurred Ronald McDonald at McDonald's restaurant; Shutterstock ID 1013839621; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): Taste of HomeRatana21/Shutterstock

The Future of the Happy Meal

McDonald’s has done some serious revamping of their Happy Meal in the last 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. Their 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.

Maggie Ward
Maggie’s background in the arts gave her a penchant for collaborative communication and the pursuit of conveying ideas in a clear, striking way. Outside of writing for Taste of Home, Maggie loves playing the piano and writing music, as well as performing with various bands and theatre productions around the city of Chicago.
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