The Forgotten Fast Food Restaurant That Offered The First Kids' Meal

Most Americans can probably rattle off the classic fast food kids meal options: burgers, fries, chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, pizza. But it wasn't always this way — and the modern kids' meal that comes with a toy was invented less than 50 years ago by a restaurant you probably didn't expect.

Although it's often taken for granted that most eateries offer some form of pared-down kids' meal on a fun-looking menu with games and crayons, restaurants over the past 100 years had to be dragged kicking and screaming into serving kids at all. Until the Prohibition era, not only did many restaurants not offer kids' menus — but they refused to serve children altogether, according to historian Andrew Haley's book "Turning The Tables." Some of the first kids' menus weren't even created by restaurants: They were served in department stores while mothers shopped, although the food was often quite bland to adhere to the scientific nutrition popular in the 1920s, per Restaurant-ing Through History.

And while menu designers have long realized that additions like cartoons and games grab kids' attention (via Eater), the link between kids' food and fun was only solidified in the late 1970s with the launch of both McDonald's famous Happy Meal and the arcade-and-pizza chain Chuck E. Cheese. However, the first fast food joint to offer kids their own special meal-and-toy combo is a restaurant many have forgotten about — if they even knew about it at all.

How defunct restaurant Burger Chef created the kids' meal-and-toy combo

Believe it or not, the first fast food restaurant to sell kids' meals was not McDonald's or even its archrival Burger King. Enter Burger Chef, started in Indianapolis in the late 1950s. The founders had patented a flame-broiler burger grill, and the first Burger Chef was simply a demo space to show off their new invention — but the burgers proved so popular that they began expanding as a full-fledged restaurant chain, per Business Insider.

And before Burger Chef folded (following a series of ill-fated corporate takeovers between the late 1960s and '80s), they were often more innovative than — and nearly as successful as — their longer-lasting competitors (via TIME). Besides being the first to sell the now-ubiquitous burger/fries/drink combo meal, they originated the "Fun Meal," a kids' meal option that contained a burger, drink, fries, dessert, and a small toy, per Reader's Digest.

Sound familiar? This combo is now pretty recognizable thanks to McDonald's Happy Meal, of which the chain sells more than 1 billion every year (via Forbes), but the Happy Meal didn't hit the market until 1979, per Consequence — or six years after Burger Chef's Fun Meal. Burger Chef even sued McDonald's but lost, per MeTV. So next time your family hits the drive-thru for a burger and the latest movie tie-in toy, don't thank the Golden Arches; pour out a chocolate milk for the creative folks at Burger Chef.