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Jan. 29, 2023

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Adult Happy Meals are shame-inducing boxes of nostalgia

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McDonald's is offering a way for adults to recapture some of the joy of their youth with Adult Happy Meals. (E.
McDonald's is offering a way for adults to recapture some of the joy of their youth with Adult Happy Meals. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune) Photo Gallery

Adult Happy Meal at McDonald’s, known formally (and synergistically) as the Cactus Plant Flea Market Happy Meal, debuted this month to grown-up sighs of at last and finally and: So I’m really doing this? I’m buying an adult Happy Meal. I’ve reached rock bottom.

Yes, from the Chicago-based folks who refused to extend breakfast past 10:30 a.m. for decades then gave us all-day breakfast only to sideline it when the pandemic blew up, comes (to quote the marketing) that old childhood “feeling of pure joy when you ordered a Happy Meal.”

I just bought one, and literally it is a cardboard box of recycled nostalgia.

It is intended to be an unnecessary splurge of self-love. Like a Home Depot hot dog. But for adults concerned about their health, there is no veggie option. There is no salad or McMaki Roll option. There is no new McDonald’s food product that suggests you’re a different person than the person you were the last time you enjoyed a Happy Meal.

You choose from a Big Mac or Chicken McNuggets — whimsically nicknamed on the packaging here as “Ball,” “Boot,” “Bone” and “Bell.” And yet, they’re not exactly whimsically priced at around $10 and $11 (depending on the McDonald’s). Also printed on the box — which is wider and squatter than a traditional Happy Meal, like a foldable Pizza Hut — is the “ba da ba ba ba” of the McDonald’s jingle and a sorta-emoji, Prince-ish note that reads:

“We (heart) 2 c u (smiley face).”

Smiling, though, is not what happens here. If you’re planning to buy one of these adult Happy Meals, I promise you will feel shame. You will be embarrassed, however briefly. Once you could order a Happy Meal on the assumption the person taking your order would figure that you were bringing it to a child. But to ask for “one of those adult Happy Meals” as an adult feels akin to requesting a price check on adult diapers.

The Happy Meal — which carries a disputed origin and a complex 40-plus year history of filling landfills with Disney tie-ins and childhoods with runaway obesity — was originally created to make a trip to McDonald’s an inevitability for cash-strapped families. It worked too well. In fact, adult toy collectors have long bought Happy Meals with an eye on resale. By its price and design, this adult Happy Meal is closer to a Bougie Happy Meal.

Take Cactus Plant Flea Market.

What is it, you wonder?

If you already knew the answer, you likely wouldn’t be eating at McDonald’s. It’s a high-end streetwear brand, partnering with a fast-food giant periodically eager to appear relevant. A peek at the Cactus Plant Flea Market website offers $60 Grimace T-shirts and $130 sweatshirts emblazoned with the image of McDonald’s moist toilettes. I believe we call this postmodern advertising.

Other than a burger or nuggets, the Adult Happy Meal comes with a drink and fries, and of course, a toy. A freaky adult collectible thing, one of four plastic figures — Grimace, the Hamburglar, Birdie the Early Bird and a new addition, Cactus Buddy, a disturbing smiley creature who looks like he’s eaten a lot of McDonald’s. He has two sets of eyeballs. Actually, in a nod to offbeat CPFM style, each of the figures has two sets of eyes. I received a four-eyed Hamburglar, and his face has become so unnerving, I can’t look at it.

Actually, there is one other thing included with these new Adult Happy Meals, though it’s more intangible. It’s the promise of escape, the sensation of feeling young again, the pleasure of having a meal of one’s own.

Or if you’re an adult, it’s just a $10 boxed lunch.