U.S. Kids and Nutrition: Effective Messaging and Strategies


Part 3 of a 3 part series on US Kids and Nutrition. This piece was written in partnership between KidSay and The Marketing Store Worldwide by Terence Burke and Bob Reynolds of KidSay and Renee Weber and Robert Pieper of The Marketing Store Worldwide.


Clearly there’s room for improvement in the area of nutritional education and motivation for kids. This is a huge topic, so we will focus on a few key points that are particularly important.

Nutrition education should begin early

According to moms, kids should be learning about “healthy eating” during preschool years. In fact, 90% of moms (of kids 5-7 years) think that kids should be taught about “healthy eating” by the age of 5 years.    And, almost two-thirds (65%) believe the teaching should begin at 3 years or younger. 5

While these numbers represent moms of younger kids (5-7), we hear the same sentiments in our focus groups with moms of older kids (8-11). 4  As they tell us…

You should start teaching kids (about healthy foods) from the get-go…around 3.  At that age they are old enough to start learning.” — Mom of 9 year old

Start (teaching kids about healthy foods) in preschool.” — Mom of 9 and 11 year old

I would say in kindergarten. That’s when they start bringing snacks to school.” — Mom of 6 and 8 yr. old

Traditional learning channels are more desirable, though TV ranks ahead of “nurse/doctor” for moms.

Given that moms want teaching to begin so early, it’s not surprising that they expect parents to be the primary educator for healthy eating.  The next best educators are “teachers” and “TV”—ahead of medical professionals.  This may be surprising, but moms are well-aware of TV’s huge presence in kids’ lives and its powerful ability to shape attitudes and desires.  At the same time, interactions with their child’s nurses or doctors are generally quite brief and in a sterile setting. 5

Kids’ preferences are similar.  Moms are #1.  Teachers and TV also rate highly.  But, “nurse/doctors” actually rate #2.  While this may reflect deference to their authority, kids are also probably factoring in the role that their school nurse plays in their school’s health curriculum.  2



Nutritional education needs to be age-appropriate

Despite who does the educating, it is critical to ensure that it is developmentally appropriate. While this may seem obvious, many educational efforts and messaging are not geared towards kids.  Our research clearly shows that kids do not understand most of the popular nutritional claims made by food and beverage products.  The reason is simple.  They lack the vocabulary.  Words like “artificial”, “preservatives”, “additives” or “sodium” are unfamiliar to them.  3,4

From 6 to 11, there are also huge differences in children’s cognitive abilities and knowledge, which need to be taken into consideration. Younger kids (6-7/8) tend to be more literal thinkers and struggle with abstract concepts such as “healthy eating”.  To them, foods tend to be “good” or “bad” and healthy eating is mostly a matter of eating the “good foods” while avoiding the bad ones.  As kids age, their brain’s ability to understand concepts and juggle variables improves.  By the time they are 9-11 years old, they have a deeper, more nuanced understanding of “healthy eating”. Instead of classifying foods as entirely “good” or “bad”, they are able to consider them in the overall balance of their diet and lifestyle. They begin to express interest in caloric content, as they understand it’s something that is linked to becoming overweight.  And, they begin to entertain notions of how they can modify their food to “make it taste better”, but still maintain some of its health benefits (e.g., cheese sauce on vegetables, sugar on grapefruit).

Nutritional education is not necessarily motivating to kids

Thus far, we have been talking about nutrition education as pivotal in encouraging kids to eat healthy.  The assumption is that if kids know what foods are healthy, they will eat them. Or, if we teach kids to “make good choices” for eating/drinking, they will do so.  But, as many health professionals, educators, marketers and moms know, this is rarely enough.

One common recommendation for making nutrition education more meaningful to kids is to teach them about the benefits of healthy foods.  The idea is if kids understand the concrete benefits of specific foods, they will want to eat them.  Want kids to clamor for spinach?  Tell them “Spinach makes you strong”.  Unfortunately, the interchange sounds something like this:

Interviewer: “If I tell you ‘Spinach makes you strong’ or ‘Carrots are good for your eyes’, does it make you want to eat those foods?

Kids:  “No!

So, why the disconnect?  Often “bad taste” is cited.  If food doesn’t taste good, kids don’t want it.  But in our research, we also find that many of the benefits being touted, simply don’t register with kids. Yes, they want to grow up to be strong. Yes, they want to have energy, have good eyesight, run fast, play hard, avoid diabetes, have a healthy heart and so forth.  But, for the most part, these are things that kids take for granted. Kids don’t worry about these things.  Plus, many of them are not immediate enough for kids to worry about. So, while they may like learning these things, it is unlikely to impact their food choices. 3,7

Strategies to help drive kid demand for healthy foods:  Nudge, Camouflage and Play

Yet, there is reason for hope.  Aside from nutrition education, there ARE strategies that both moms and food companies can use—to help drive kid demand for healthier food and beverages.

Two strategies that are often used in the kid realm are: “making it cool” (by tactics such as celebrity endorsements) and “reward” (where kids are given prizes or benefits).  Obviously, these can be used to help drive kid demand for healthier items.   However, there are other effective strategies. Three powerful strategies that are less well-known are:  NUDGE, CAMOUFLAGE and PLAY.


One of the simplest strategies involves structuring the environment to make healthier goods/beverages more salient. The underlying premise is that people tend to be attracted to and select items that are visually prominent or the ones that are most convenient. Essentially, healthy options are made “front and center” so that kids are drawn to them. Or, they are automatically given (i.e., set as “the default”) so that kids have to make an extra effort to get non-healthy options.

Using this strategy, one can employ various tactics to make healthier options more salient to kids. Moms who place bowls of cherries or pretzels on their kitchen counter for kids to grab are using nudge.  School cafeterias that place fruit at the beginning of the lunch line or desserts on the top shelf (above the direct line of vision) are using nudge.  Grocery stores that position pre-sweetened cereals at a child’s eye level and food manufacturers that package their products in vivid colors or with a cool promotion, are using nudge. Fast food restaurants that provide fruit as a default in their kids’ meals, are also using nudge.

In all cases, the goal is simple: increase the likelihood that kids will choose healthier options by making them salient and/or setting them as the default.


The second strategy, we call “camouflage”.  This strategy usually involves “hiding” a healthy food (that kids don’t like) within another food (that kids do like).   Mixing spinach into a fruit smoothie or pureed carrots into spaghetti sauce are examples of camouflage. One retail product that successfully leverages this strategy is V8’s V-Fusion, which mixes vegetable juice with fruit juice.   Another variation involves coupling a disliked healthy food with another food or sauce that kids do like.  One of the most popular instances with moms is pairing carrots or broccoli with Ranch dip.  This combination is now  available at retail by Earthbound Farm Dippin’ Doubles Carrots and Ranch Dip.   Though simple, it “works miracles” in terms of getting kids to eat vegetables.  In fact, a recent study conducted by Temple University, found that kids 3-5 eat about 80% more vegetables when given a dip.


The third strategy involves bringing play into food.  Through our extensive work in the area of play, we know that kids are driven to play and look for opportunities to do so.  Some moms and marketers may cringe at this strategy because they envision “food fights” or “kids playing INSTEAD of eating”.  While these are legitimate concerns, we are not talking about food fights or distracting kids from eating.  Rather, we are talking about leveraging play to motivate kids to choose healthier foods.

To see evidence of this power of play in kids’ products. look no further than to some of their favorite foods—Oreos, M&Ms, Goldfish, Fruit Roll-ups, Lunchables and String Cheese.  All of these provide the opportunity for play.  Oreos offer the physical play of unscrewing them and deciding whether to eat the filling or cookie first.  M&Ms let kids count, compare, and trade different colors—or create colorful tongues to show off. Goldfish can be used for fantasy play, such as fishing (where you use a peanut buttered straw to pick up the crackers).  A fruit roll-up lets kids play by unrolling it, twisting it or punching out shapes.   Lunchables allow kids to build their own sandwiches or to “play airplane” by dipping chips into nacho sauce.   String Cheese lets kids pull it apart into pieces and eat it “like worms”.

While most of these examples involve playing with the food, it’s important to note that sometimes the play can be provided through the packaging.  One example of this would be GoGurt (which kids have the fun of squeezing the yogurt out, reading jokes/trivia and sometimes pretending the tube is a snake or a light saber).  Another example is “Go Buddies” (an applesauce in a squeeze bottle with a curvy shaped body) that kids enjoy the sensation of squeezing, pretending it’s a headless body and after it’s eaten, blowing it up with air and then tossing it around or stomping on it to see if it pops.

Implications Marketers Should Consider

Food and beverage marketers should develop age-segmented nutrition education efforts, beginning with their youngest consumers (pre-school).

Marketers and companies are certainly part of the solution.  However, rather than focusing all education efforts through traditional marketing channels (television, packaging, etc.), leverage traditional influencers, including parents and teachers, to help with the nutrition education effort.

Marketers should look to employ the strategies of nudge, camouflage, and play to encourage kids to demand the healthier options.

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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.

2 KidSay Trend Tracker, Feb/March 2012

3 KidSay TMS Qualitative Research, June 2012

4 TMS Qualitative Research, July 2012

5 KidSay Trend Tracer:  2012 moms of 5-7 year olds

6 KidSay Year End Trend Tracker, 2011

7 TMS Qualitative Research, January 2011

8 KidSay Trend Tracker, 2004

9 KidSay Trend Tracker, 2007

10 KidSay Trend Tracker, April/May 2012

11 Temple University study, cited in Parent’s magazine 5/2012

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