U.S. Kids & Nutrition: Making a Difference

Executive Summary

  1. US Kids and Nutrition

Over the past decade, the obesity epidemic among children has been growing.  Currently, about 1 in 3 U.S. children are overweight.  15% are considered obese.1 With this growing epidemic, there has been a collective call for action for those of us empowered to “do something.”

  • The government has launched a new food guide (MyPlate) as well as new campaigns like Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!”
  • Schools are improving their lunch menus and introducing nutrition education at younger ages.
  • Moms, the gatekeepers for most families, are using more strategies to encourage their kids to eat healthy.
  • Food companies are getting involved—subjecting themselves to self-imposed marketing regulations and launching family-directed advertising and promotional initiatives.

The purpose of this US Kids and Nutrition white paper is to provide food companies, as well as broader youth and family marketers with insight and guidance to address the topic of children’s “healthy eating.”

While much has been written on “kids and nutrition” from the adult perspective—moms, educators and academics—we’ve heard little from the kids themselves.  Yet, to effectively reach kids, it is critical to understand them—in terms of attitudes, behaviors and knowledge.  That is why this white paper speaks directly about kids, mostly from their point of view.

Drawing on years of foundational research by The Marketing Store and KidSay, this paper addresses three topics:

  1. Where kids stand on “healthy eating”
  2. Kids’ awareness and understanding of “healthy eating” fundamentals and principles
  3. Effective nutrition education, messaging and three strategies to bring about positive healthy changes in children’s eating habits.

The focus of this paper is on kids 5-11 years old and is based on both quantitative and qualitative research. The quantitative piece primarily leverages the proprietary KidSay Trend Trackers, including those surveying kids 5-15 years old and moms of younger kids (5-7 years old). The qualitative piece includes focus groups with hundreds of kids, moms and teachers—conducted by both KidSay and The Marketing Store.

Executive Summary

  • Moms and kids want to make additional improvements in their eating habits. Few kids see their eating habits as poor. Moms agree with them.
  • Kids see the world simply and don’t strive for perfection. Thus, nutrition messaging and education must reflect this.
  • The importance of eating healthy varies by situation. Family dinners and school lunches are on the top of the list of situations where healthy foods are most critical.
  • Most favorite foods of kids are those deemed “less healthy”, with fruit being the exception.
  • Kids are learning about healthy eating mostly from traditional influencers—parents, teachers, and medical personnel.
  • Kids’ perceptions of healthy eating frameworks are limited, especially with the newest guide, MyPlate.
  • MyPlate’s concepts need additional texture to be understood by younger kids.
  • Kids have a clear understanding of some food categories as healthy or unhealthy (milk, water, fruits, vegetables), but many (including grains, proteins and “kid foods”) are less clear.
  • While kids are reading labels (even at the younger ages), they seldom understand them. Nor, do they read them for nutritional purposes. They often read them for the sake of reading, or because they are bored. This is an area where we can potentially make a difference.
  • Some product nutritional claims are more compelling to kids than others. The strongest claim tested was “Made with real fruit”, while others focused on “Less of the bad stuff” (such as reduced sugar) appear to foster expectations that the food will taste worse, be less healthy and lower their interest in trying the product.
  • Moms believe the teaching of nutritional concepts should begin early (pre-school).
  • Both moms and kids believe that parents, teachers, medical professionals, and television are the most effective channels to learn about nutrition. Surprisingly, moms rank television higher than their kids do.
  • Nutrition education needs to be age appropriate. Younger kids (5-8 years) are literal thinkers and thus, marketers need to be more prescriptive in their approach. Older kids (9 ) can begin to understand the nuances of nutrition frameworks and some of the consequences.
  • Because nutritional education is seldom motivating for kids, marketers and parents need to employ strategies to further drive kid demand and consumption. Education alone will not be enough.
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1 Ogden, C.L., Carroll, M.D., Kite, B.K., & Fegal, K.M. (2012). Prevalence of obesity and trends in body mass index among U.S. children and adolescents, 1999-2010. Journal of the American Medical Association, 307 (5), 483-490.