The Kid’s Menu: Food Marketing to Children

Kids Menu Title Text

Happy New Year! If you resolved to feed your munchkins a healthier diet (yay!), you need to know that purveyors of fast food are not on your side. Their success depends on your failure, and they have bigger wallets than you do.

Knowledge is power, so some facts about fast food advertising from the Rudd Center:

  • In 2012, 4.6 billion dollars was spent on fast food advertising. That is a hard number for me to get my brain around. 4.6 billion dollars will buy 920 million kid’s meals: 33,000 lifetimes worth of daily happy meals. Imagine the profit that must be generated to make spending that amount of money reasonable. These people are not your friends.
  • Fewer than 1% of kid’s meals (33 out of 5427)  met USDA nutrition standards.
  • Only 3% of kid’s meals met the industry’s own standards.

Fast food was traditionally advertised in print, on TV and radio, and on billboards. Add on product placement and packaging (that attractive box is not at small-hand-reaching-from-cart-distance by accident). Pile on celebrity endorsements and the use of popular characters (Spongebob Squarepants Fruit Snacks anyone?)

Newer methods embrace social media, including YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. Americans spent an estimated 121 billion minutes–a total of 230,213 years–on social media in 2012. Where better to find a potential customer?

Social media sites entice with advergames, contests, points to redeem, and free downloads; if your child subscribes to or follows a YouTube or Twitter site he or she is volunteering to be sent endless “opportunities,” with ads on the side. They recruit their users (your children) to “share” and “invite” friends to participate on the websites–free word of mouth advertising! The star of social media is Facebook, but it comes with 6 billion fast food ads–19% of the total ads on the site.

Advertisers hire brilliant marketers to design attractive logos which grab the attention of potential customers. Food stylists make their options look better than they ever do in reality. Ads hint at advantages beyond the food: “Live every day with love” with Ne-Yo at McDonalds, or have cool friends with applewood smoked “bacon teens” at Wendy’s. They suggest health benefits and a happier, more carefree life. They bait with prices that will feed your children more cheaply than the grocery store, until you switch to higher priced items at the counter.

McDonalds alone spends almost three times the dollars on advertisements than all of the fruit, vegetable, water, and milk producers combined.

Children’s advocates fight to decrease fast food advertisements aimed at children, and increase ads for nutritious foods. We fight to have most of the kid’s options healthy, not just the current average of 2%. We work to make fast food restaurants default to a healthy option (apples and milk, rather than fries and soda), and keep those healthy options affordable. We have made inroads, but the struggle is a mountain and profit motive is a mudslide.

Fast food ads have presence in your child’s life. They are unavoidable. Your children will see them and will want what they are selling.

We have absolutely no evidence that media literacy in any way defends against the effectiveness of advertisements. None. Knowing that they are trying to sell you something that is bad for you does not keep you from wanting it. You may not remember that you can “live every day with love” with Ne-Yo, but you will get a bit of a lift when you see that bright red and gold sign. We are grown ups, and we fall for the ads. We cannot expect more of our children than we do of ourselves.

In the end, it comes down to committing to do the right thing, and then acting on that commitment:

  • Clean out your cupboards and throw out all the junk.
  • Make a meal plan for the week before you shop.
  • Shop with a list made from that meal plan.
  • Shop at farmer’s markets and around the outer rim of the grocery store. Avoid the aisles unless there is something on your list that is on that aisle.
  • Prepare meals ahead for busy nights, so that you don’t end up in that line at the fast food restaurant.
  • Keep healthy snack food available to hand: fruits and veggies, whole grain crackers, cheese, popcorn… Throw out the chips and snack cakes.
  • Eat the food you bought, at home, with your kids, at the table and with the TV off. So much better than the fast food line with your kids bickering in the back seat!

Most importantly, be consistent.

Remember that “never” is much easier for a child to understand and deal with than “sometimes.” If you never stop at the drive through and never buy junk food, after the first two weeks your kids will rarely ask, even though they saw that yummy advertisement a dozen times and really wanted to try those fruit snacks.

If you sometimes give in, they will ask until your ears bleed. Pestering is powerful when you’re tired and stressed.

You can do this. They have 4.6 billion dollars on their side, but you have love for your children and the responsibility they handed you with that warm sweet bundle. You win.

Domesticated Momster

All the Right Foods

Little chief-cook tasting the carrot isolated on white

One of my favorite teachers once said “Never fight a battle with a child that you cannot win.” Excellent, timeless advice.

Luckily, children are young and inexperienced. We adults are old and treacherous–we can outsmart them.

This is particularly good advice when it comes to nourishing a child. The grown ups need to win food battles, because the losing side is populated with joint pain, back pain, heart disease, stroke and death. We have to set up this battle so that we cannot lose, because otherwise our child will suffer.

There are two keys to making this work.

The first is that children do not cry for what they don’t know exists. A three year old who doesn’t know about chicken nuggets and French fries does not beg for them. If it’s not too late, start on day one and keep only healthy food in the house, in the proportions you want them to consume. Eat at home. Then let them have it. Everything in the house is good for them, so you never have any arguments over what your urchins can or cannot eat. If they munch on healthy snacks throughout the day, like whole grain crackers with cheese or pieces of fruit or veggies, it really doesn’t matter if they eat formal meals.  There is no need to argue over what they need to eat before they leave the table.

If it is too late and they already have some bad habits, explain to them that you’re turning over a new leaf, eating healthier, and throwing out all the junk. Then do it, and put in earplugs. It gets better in about two weeks if you are consistent and don’t give in.

The second key is that “never” is a lot easier for a child to deal with than “sometimes.” “Never” is a shake of the head, a smile, and a change of subject. “Sometimes” is endless daily arguments over what they want today because sometimes they get it, sometimes you buy it, sometimes it’s O.K. It’s easier for the child as well: children are less stressed and develop healthier habits when they can eat when they’re hungry, eat whatever is available, and stop eating when they’re not hungry.

So what edibles do you bring into the house? Start with whole foods: things that look like they grew out of the ground or lived on it. Shop mostly around the outside of the grocery store where they keep the produce, meats, and dairy. Avoid the aisles unless there is something specific on them that you need. Don’t buy anything with ingredients that you can’t pronounce without a chemistry degree, and don’t buy sodas.

Make a meal plan for the week, taking into account what is in season, what you like to eat, and what your week is going to be like. Make meals ahead that you can reheat or reinvent later in the week when you have a crazy busy night. Throw together an extra pan of lasagna, bake a larger chicken than you need so you can make quick quesadillas, or save some leftovers for a shepherd’s pie. Plan ahead so you won’t be tempted by the drive through.

About 2/3 of everything children eat should be fruits, veggies and whole or enriched grains. This leaves only about 1/3 for proteins (meat, eggs, cheese, beans, and nuts) and starches (potatoes, bread, corn). That translates to a maximum of about 6 ounces per day of protein containing foods for a medium sized child, and 6 ounces of starch. Visually this is a portion about the size of a deck of cards, much less than the average child eats. This leaves lots of room in their stomachs for fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Children don’t overeat on a diet that is mostly fruits and veggies, which means you don’t have to chase them around trying to limit how much they eat so that they won’t get chubby. Feel free to let them have seconds, thirds and fourths on the broccoli and carrots, but sorry kid, that’s all the meat and potatoes we made.

Arrange the battlefield ahead of time in such a way that you have no chance of losing–you don’t even actually need to fight–so that your child will grow up healthy, nourished and strong, with good lifelong habits. Do this consistently and everyone’s lives will be less stressful. Your children will know that food is nourishment of the body, not an emotional crutch for the soul.

Below is a chart that should give you an idea of what the goals are for your child’s diet, based on their sex, age, and activity level:

diet table2