U.S. Kids and Nutrition: What Kids Know


Part 2 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.


Multiple messengers: Kids are learning about “healthy eating” from many sources.

Today’s kids (and their moms) report being surrounded by healthy eating messages.  In fact, when asked about where they are learning about “healthy eating”, kids (8-11) cite many different sources.2 Of these, traditional venues (parents, teachers, medical personnel) reign supreme.

Despite efforts on the part of so many, kids’ knowledge is still limited.


In June 2011 the USDA abandoned their almost 20 year effort to teach Americans about healthy eating through the use of the food pyramid. The new framework is MyPlate. As the USDA describes it,

MyPlate illustrates the five food groups that are the building blocks for a healthy diet using a familiar image—a place setting for a meal. Before one eats, they should think about what goes on their plate or in their cup or bowl.

From what we know of the brain’s ability to process and interpret information, MyPlate’s graphic rendering is far better at communicating what “healthy eating” looks like than the previous Food Pyramid effort.

Awareness and Understanding of MyPlate is low among kids.

Less than half (41%) of kids 8-11 are aware of MyPlate. This is considerably lower than awareness for the Food Pyramid (73%). Even fewer kids really know anything about MyPlate.  While they may have heard or seen it somewhere, only 23% of kids say they know anything about it.2

Among those who say they know what “MyPlate” is, knowledge appears to be limited.  Virtually all kids (92%) have a general notion that it is related to health and nutrition. But they don’t necessarily know how.  For example, some kids think the plate as an organizing template that tells you about where to put your different foods on the plate. 4,10

“It tells you the food groups and helps kids know where the different food groups go.  You match your food with the name on the plate.  For example, pineapple would go in the fruits column.  Carrots would go in the vegetables”.  – Girl, aged 9

This is a start.  But it will take more than just having a general sense that MyPlate is about “healthy eating” to start to shape kids’ behavior.  Kids will have to know what items comprise each of the food groups.  Almost all kids can easily identify some foods that fit into the sections labeled fruits, vegetables and dairy.  However, our qualitative research indicates that many kids have difficulty identifying grains and proteins. 4,7

–        “A grain is like corn. And umm.” — Boy, aged 8

–        “I don’t know what (protein) is. Maybe yogurt.” — Girl, aged 9

This is important, because while the old food pyramid provided images of different foods comprising the categories, MyPlate does not.

Kids also need to understand that MyPlate reflects portion balance or relative proportions of different food categories.  While older kids (8-11) readily pick up on this concept, it can be a difficult concept for younger kids (5-7) to grasp.  Proportions, fractions or pie charts all require higher level thinking than younger kids are capable of, and these concepts are not typically introduced until 2nd grade.  And, even if they grasp the idea, there’s still often the question of portion size.  How much milk should be in that cup—is it a tall glass or a coffee mug?


Kids are confused about the healthfulness of many foods and beverages.

In qualitative research we’ve seen that kids are pretty good at identifying most sweets (such as candy and ice cream) as “unhealthy” and most vegetables or fruits as “healthy”. Even 5 year olds know that licorice isn’t healthy, while apples are.  Outside of these categories, however, perceptions are more disparate and cloudy.

For example, during recent focus groups where we asked 50 kids (6-9) to sort 43 products into three piles. healthy, not healthy, unsure, virtually all of the kids identified various fruits, vegetables, water and milk as “healthy”.  They also identified various candies and soda as “unhealthy”.  However, for many other categories, there was less certainty. Interestingly, many of these items are classic “kids’ foods”.4


The Marketing Store and KidSay Nutrition White Paper



As kids learn to read, they often start looking for opportunities to read words they know—including on food packages.  By the time they’re 8 years old, many kids (50%) tell us that they’re reading the nutritional facts on food labels.  Consistent with other research showing girls to be significantly more interested in learning about nutrition, we see that girls are more likely to read labels than boys.  But, the fact that almost half of boys say they are reading labels is a bit surprising.6

Q: Do you read nutritional facts on food labels?

Total kids (8-11) Girls Boys
Yes 51% 56% 46%
No 49% 44% 54%


The motive for label reading is seldom “good nutrition”.

If you ask them what they are looking for or why they are reading labels, motives vary.  The youngest kids (5-7) are typically reading them for the sake of reading.  It’s a thrill to be able to look for words they recognize; the message is unimportant.  For older kids (8+), many report reading nutritional information on packaging to help alleviate boredom while shopping with mom.

“It’s sort of boring grocery shopping, so sometimes I pick up things and read the labels.”  Boy, age 10

Occasionally, when helping to select a product (e.g., which soda to buy) or trying to convince their mom to buy a specific item, some kids will also look to nutritional information and claims.

Sometimes when I want to buy pop, I look to see how much sugar there is in different ones.” Girl, age 9

Only rarely (and mostly among older kids 9+) do kids look at nutrition labels because they want to select healthy products. 3,4

While Kids may read labels, most are meaningless to them

When asked what nutritional fact(s) they look for, kids tell us…

#1 Calories

#2 Fat content

#3 Sugar content

#4 Serving size

#5 Carbohydrates

Yet, when asked about these facts, few kids had any bench marks.  For example, when asked “how much sugar is good or bad” (for categories where kids say they look at sugar content, like soft drinks and cereal), very few could answer.  The most common answers were either “I don’t know” or “I look at different ones to see which one has the lower number”. Similarly, when asked about calories, kids struggled to answer what number was “good” or “bad”.  When shown packages with “100 calorie” claims, most kids actually thought that this was a lot of calories and therefore, signified that the product was unhealthy.3,6

In another survey, we showed kids a series of nutritional claims – drawn from the marketplace and using terms that kids are familiar with.  For each, we asked them “When you see these words on the front of a new food item…1) How good do you think it would taste?  2) How healthy do you think it would be?  3) How much would you want to try it?

Of the 10 claims tested, the one that resonated most strongly with kids was “made with real fruit”.  Other strong claims were:  “More vitamins and minerals” and “All natural”.  Interestingly, “made with organic ingredients” was rated as lower on taste, health and desire than “all natural ingredients”. Based on qualitative research, this partly reflects kids’ lack of understanding for “organic” as well as their observation that organic produce often doesn’t look “as perfect” as non-organic produce.  The weakest claims were those that speak to “less of the bad stuff” (e.g., reduced sugar, no high fructose corn syrup, reduced salt).


Implications Marketers Should Consider

To effectively support MyPlate, food and beverage companies:

  • Need to assist in building awareness and comprehension (including food groups and portion sizes).
  • Consider providing concrete examples of how their product fits into the guide.

Food and beverage companies should consider developing a nutrition labeling system that is targeted to kids and fits within the MyPlate framework.

Companies should take care to craft their nutritional claims, using child-friendly terms and when possible, focus on what the product has (or offers), rather than what has been taken away (e.g., reduced salt).

Read Part 1 of 3: Where U.S. Kids Stand on “Healthy Eating”>>

Read Part 3 of 3: Three Strategies to Bring About Healthy Changes in Kids’ Eating Habits.>>

Download full white paper [PDF]>>



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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