In the past few months, kids and healthy eating once again entered the public discourse…First Lady Michelle Obama launched Let’s Move, her effort to fight childhood obesity, and more accurately, to “raise a healthier generation of American kids.” Sarah Palin responded by asserting that parents have the right to give their kids desserts…Republicans, Chris Christie (New Jersey’s controversial governor), and possible presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, surprised many with public statements supporting Mrs. Obama, citing their own childhood struggles with weight as the reasons. In 2010, food companies continued to shy away from advertising their products to children, with many adopting higher internal standards than external standards would require. California banned toys in children’s fast food meals, while an Arizona House committee recently passed a bill banning cities or counties from restricting toys in similar meals.
Debates over how to feed children – and who has permission to police what children eat – are nothing new. For parents, the meals and snacks that their children eat have always been seen as symbolic of their style of nurturing. Experts of all kind have fed parents sometimes conflicting information about the right approach to not only nourishing kids’ bodies, but crafting their habits. How one’s child dines is seen as being about more than what kids put in their mouths. It’s also understood to be a reflection of what the adults in their lives have put in their heads.
Children’s eating rests at the uncomfortable juxtaposition between the right to raise one’s family with freedom and the constant conversation on family values that has entered the political sphere. It raises questions about whether parenting belongs in the public or the private sphere. And it makes all of us wonder what role parents are required to and even permitted to play in the decisions about raising their children.
But perhaps in this debate, one important voice has been lost: kids’. Most kids we speak to understand that eating healthy matters, even if their definitions of “health” and their understanding of the food that qualify as healthy differ. Many acknowledge that it’s hard to eat healthy, at least some of the time. But most kids also recognize that they have some control in how they eat. The content of kids’ cupboards might differ significantly across socio-economic lines, and school lunches (despite minimum standards in public schools) made available to them differ significantly in terms of food quality and appeal (even within the same geographic area). So while adults continue to focus on the politics of healthy eating, kids are increasingly seeking to reconcile what they learn in school, from parents and even on TV with the everyday choices they make about their meals, but mostly, about their snacks.
So what does this mean for marketers? Look for ways to make healthy eating easier for kids – more choices, better taste profiles and more convenient offerings. Speak TO them, not just ABOUT them, and let them decide. And finally, beware of being one more voice talking only to parents about this issue. At some point, parents will tune out…But kids are increasingly tuned in to health, and might even give healthier options a try all on their own.