U.S. Kids and Nutrition: Where Kids Stand


Part 1 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.


Just ask any kid to rate himself in terms of “healthy eating” and chances are he will rate himself positively.  Most kids think they eat pretty healthy. This is true across gender and age.  For example, about two-thirds of tweens (8-11) say they are “excellent” or “pretty good. Very few will say they are “not very good”. 2

The Marketing Store Global Kids Study

In qualitative research, we’ve also found this holds true for younger kids.  Kids aged 5-7 rate themselves very positively—mostly “excellent” or “pretty good”.  While a few said “just okay”, none of them said they were “not very good”.3,4

Interestingly, from qualitative research (with both kids and their moms), it appears that self-ratings do not necessarily correlate with overall eating patterns.  Some of the kids who had moms that were much stricter about their child’s food consumption tended to rate themselves a little more critically.4 Perhaps this is because greater awareness about “healthy eating” leads to broader perspective on healthy eating and more opportunities for self-scrutiny.

Kids’ positive self-image around healthy eating is driven by 2 things. 

First, they have a very simple conception of “healthy eating.”

To most kids, “healthy eating” means “eating fruits and vegetables” and “limiting too much bad food” (especially sweets or chips) in their daily diets. 3,4  Accordingly, when asked about reasons for their self-ratings on “healthy eating”, typical responses were:

“I eat fruits and some vegetables.” —Girl, age 6

“I don’t eat too much ice cream or candy.” —Girl, age 8

“I like to eat apples. I’m the king of apples.” —Boy, age 10

“I say (that I’m) pretty good because I like to eat chips sometimes.” —Boy, age 7

Second, kids do not strive for perfection.

While they acknowledge there’s room for improvement (especially in terms of eating more fruit and less candy/chocolate), kids do not seek or desire to “be perfect”.   They want to be able to eat some sweets and indulgent foods on occasion. Even those who rate themselves as ”excellent”, take a moderate view.  As one girl aged 8 says:

“You can’t eat just fruits and vegetables all of the time.”

Furthermore, kids recognize that in certain special situations, including school parties, sweets, chips, pizza and other “bad” foods are a mainstay.  Some do mention that this party fare could be healthier or at least include a few healthy items.  However, none of them want to jettison all of the treats.  After all, is it really a party if there are no “treats”?3 (For more information on situational eating norms, please see “Getting real: expectations vary by situation” in part 2).



Most kids think their moms see them as “healthy eaters”

Interestingly, kids think their moms see them as “healthy eaters” too.  When asked how their moms would rate them, virtually all kids (6-12) said she would rate them the same­—and in some cases, better than they rate themselves.4  As kids saw it, their moms would be focused on the healthy food they gave their kids to eat…

“She serves me fruits and vegetables.” —Girl, age 7

“She packs me a healthy lunch.” —Boy, age 8

“She doesn’t see me eating junk food, like candy or chips.” —Boy, age 9

“My mom makes spinach and rice at least once a week.” —Girl, age 10


Most moms view their kids as “healthy eaters”

It looks like kids CAN read their mom’s minds. In our quantitative surveys, moms (at least of younger kids 5-7) generally rate their kids positively on “healthy eating”.5

The Marketing Store and KidSay Nutrition White Paper

More to the point, in focus groups, when we ask both kids and their moms to “rate themselves/their child in terms of healthy eating”, their ratings are positive and very consistent. For example, for kids who rated themselves as “pretty good”, chances are that their moms also rated them as “pretty good”.4



Most moms tell us that they’re working to improve their children’s eating habits. 

63% of moms with younger kids (5-7) say they’ve “made a change to their child’s eating habits in the past year”.5

We also hear this sentiment echoed in our focus groups with moms of older children (8-11).4

The most popular changes are: more vegetables, more fruits, less “junk food”, more variety and more organic.  Other top changes are:  fewer snacks, more water, less sugar, less soda (apparently to reduce sugar and calories) and fewer fried foods.6

Looking specifically at organic, about one-third of moms (of kids 5-7) tell us that they “are buying more organic food than last year”.5 However, this doesn’t mean that they are totally sold on organic.  Most moms report buying organic foods/beverages selectively, more for their kids than themselves.  They also report buying organic for products they consider higher risk.   One of the products often cited as “high risk” is strawberries because moms have heard that they contain high levels of pesticides. Other fruits like bananas are not.  Milk is another “hot button” with many moms, due to its frequent consumption by kids and concerns about the impact of growth hormones on them.7


Kids acknowledge their parents’ efforts (to encourage healthier eating) and say they’ve made positive changes.

80% of kids (8-11) say that “over the past year, their parents have changed the types of food they have made, to be healthier for the family.” 6

And, when asked about their personal eating habits, most kids report taking steps to eat healthier.  Granted, these steps may be small.  But a sizable minority (34%), report significant changes. And, it isn’t just girls.  Over a quarter of boys say they’ve made “a lot” of changes.6

The Marketing Store and KidSay Nutrition White Paper

The primary changes that kids say they’ve made are:

#1 More fruit

#2 More vegetables

#3 Less/no junk food

#4 Eat less

#5 Eat less/no candy


The critical thing in promoting healthy eating, moms say, is to be realistic.

According to moms, it is not realistic to eliminate all unhealthy food.  They accept that kids (and they) are always going to eat some less healthy foods.  These foods are too ubiquitous, convenient and “good-tasting”. So, one of the primary messages moms strive to teach their kids is “balance”.

“You can eat junk, but it needs to be in moderation.”

Most of your food needs to be healthy.”

“If you eat candy or a cookie, then you have to eat something healthy.”


Furthermore, most moms view some less healthy items as serving an important role as “a treat” that makes people (both themselves and their kids) happy.

“Sure I could serve my kids just water and milk. But, when you pull out the juice boxes, it’s all smiles. The important thing is that they don’t have them every day.”

Consequently, moms strive to position less healthy foods or beverages as “special treats” that are to be enjoyed—while moderating when, where and how often kids consume them.

Moms also recognize that it’s a challenge to get some kids to eat healthy.  Within their families, it’s not uncommon to have one child who loves fruit while another child loathes it.  Or, they have one child who is more experimental while another sticks to a limited repertoire of “classic kid foods”—like hot dogs, cheese pizza, mac & cheese, chicken nuggets, French fries, baby carrots and apples.

The bottom line for moms is– getting children to embrace “healthy eating” is viewed as a long-term effort that is best achieved by focusing on incremental improvements.  Instead of setting absolute goals (e.g., eat the quantities of foods as dictated by the food pyramid), moms tell us they set smaller, more achievable goals. 4,7

“I don’t think 5-a-day will work for my kids; so I work towards 3 (fruits or vegetables) a day.”

“I’m just working on them drinking more water than juice.”

“I’m trying to get them to at least try one bite of new foods I serve.”


Getting real:  expectations vary by situation

Part of being realistic about healthy eating is recognizing the power of context. People have different expectations or norms for different types of situations. A Sunday Brunch at a fancy restaurant, a quiet family dinner at home and a quick fast-food lunch—all elicit different expectations.  Both kids and moms clearly see this.  As shown below, healthy eating is most valued for “family meals at home” and school lunches. Snacks at parties or meals at fast-food restaurants are less so. 2,5

How important is it for you/your child to eat healthy ?

The Marketing Store and KidSay Nutrition White Paper

“Eating Healthy” has become “cool”

Within the past decade, there’s been a shift in kids’ attitudes towards “healthy eating”.  And this shift has been pretty dramatic.  The vast majority (80%) now think it’s “cool”; up significantly from 59% in 2004.  Correspondingly, very few (5%) now view it as “uncool”, as opposed to 19% in 2004.

How kids (8-11) rate “eating healthy”
The Marketing Store and KidSay Nutrition White Paper Graph

While healthy eating is now “cool”, it’s important to note that dieting is not.  Kids are significantly less likely to rate it as “cool” (33% vs. 80% for healthy eating) and many (39%) think it’s totally uncool.  Plus, from interviews with kids, it’s clear that most associate it solely with eating restrictions—and that’s highly “un-cool”. 8, 9, 10


Kids also view some “healthier foods” as “cool”.

This positive attitude towards “healthy eating” is also seen in their attitudes towards some foods.  In asking kids to rate a series of different items, it’s interesting that some of the “healthiest items” are also viewed as “cool”. Topping the list is fruit, which is on par with candy and chips.  Healthy drinks and snacks are reasonably cool, which is heartening because it suggests that kids are open to these types of items.  However, veggies, vitamins and energy bars aren’t so cool—likely because they often fall short on taste.10


Cool ratings for Specific Foods/Beverages (among kids 8-11 years old)

The Marketing Store and KidSay White Paper - Coolest Foods

However, except for fruit, many of their favorite foods are less healthy.

To get a sense for what they like, kids (8-11) were asked a series of questions about food.10  In classifying their responses of healthy versus unhealthy, it’s clear that many of their favorite foods (besides fruit) are not that healthy.  In fact, across a variety of questions about their “favorite foods”, the ratio of healthy to unhealthy foods tended to be 2:3 or lower (2 healthy to 3 unhealthy). Below are their top 5 responses to some of these questions:

At the same time, when asked what snacks their parents give them, that they don’t like, the number one item they mention is “fruit”.   So, fruit is not a silver bullet. 10 From qualitative, we’ve heard kids object to specific types of fruit (e.g., I don’t like pears) or the lack of variety  (e.g., She (mom) always gives me an apple).  Sometimes it is just a case of relative deprivation (e.g., I get grapes. My friends get cookies or chips). 4,7

Implications Marketers Should Consider

Companies and marketers need to help reset the appropriate nutrition benchmarks so that kids and moms can more easily understand and act on them.

Simplify your nutrition messaging to kids, focusing on bite-sized, digestible elements at a given touch point.

Be realistic and encouraging in providing the appropriate nutrition targets.

Identify strategies to make the more healthy options more acceptable to kids. (For specific strategies, please see the section on “strategies to help drive kids demand” in Part 3 of 3.


Read on for Part 2 of 3: Kids’ Understanding of “Healthy Eating” Principles>>

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