Food Marketing to Kids (and what you can do about it)

By blog team member Kiran

The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that children are subject to a staggering seven hours of media each day in the form of television, computers, phones, and electronic devices. Personally, in our household, screen time is very much limited, but let’s be honest, no matter how much you try to shield your kids from screens and everything that goes along with them, it’s virtually (pardon the pun) impossible.

The issue at hand here is not how much they’re watching television or playing on their iPhone; it’s the marketing that’s being shoved in their faces during most waking hours — in particular, food marketing to kids.

What Studies Show

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reviewed 28 hours of Nickelodeon programming last October (2012) and noted that of the food ads shown, 69% were for items of poor nutritional value (sugary cereals, candy/fruit snacks, flavored yogurt, fast food, etc.). And according to The Food Marketing Workgroup, the junk food industry spends almost $2 billion a year on marketing to young people (!!).

The concerns are many when it comes to food marketing to kids, especially when considering the ever increasing obesity rates. Jessica Castonguay, a doctoral candidate in communications at the University of Arizona, recently participated in a study assessing whether childhood obesity is linked to clever marketing tactics. “Unfortunately our study found that health messages are frequently used to advertise foods that are not particularly healthy,” she says of their findings. “Implying that a cereal gives kids the energy to make them better athletes, despite the fact that it has more than 10 grams of sugar per serving, seems misleading. I want children to learn the difference between truly healthy choices and occasional treats. My fear is that advertisers are blurring those lines.”

We all know that marketing tactics and words can be confusing, even as educated adults. The words “natural,” “real,” “whole grain,” or “whole wheat” are just some of the terms that get used in various contexts. If we have a tough time wading our way through the terms, how in the world can we expect kids to have any luck?

Studies have shown that food advertising can contribute to numerous health problems including being overweight, which, by the way, has increased to 35% of children aged 6-11. Even on a day-to-day basis, it’s just plain annoying to have kids ask for food and products they see on TV that they’d otherwise not know about–products that many of us try to steer them away from as best as we can. And since we’re talking about it, how cool would it be to see advertisements for vegetables or fruits coupled with a kid-known celebrity or cartoon character (hint-hint Ad Council)?


Then vs. Now

Naturally, we probably assume that things weren’t as bad when we were growing up. So here are a few related statistics.

Not only are meals being supersized, so are the amount of ads targeting kids. In 2009, preschoolers viewed 21% more fast food ads than in 2003, children viewed 34% more, and teens 29% more. Here you can find other facts about fast food nutrition and marketing to kids. Each one is concerning in itself.

What You Can Do

  1. Be Aware
    Know what your children are watching, what sites they are surfing, and what games they are playing. Sounds obvious, but sometimes I’m amazed at what my kids are picking up since I obviously don’t watch over their shoulders at all times. Take some time to play the game they enjoy and sit down to watch a full episode of the show they tune into, without fast-forwarding the commercials. Familiarize yourself with their world and know that even school cafeterias showcase similar ads/banners.
  2. Educate
    Try as we can, marketing to kids is not going to go away. Neither are processed foods or other unhealthy choices. As a parent, it’s your job to teach them to recognize what is being put in front of them and to help them realize they will have choices, but that they’re just that–choices. Help them understand how to navigate between a smart choice and an unhealthy choice. Also, a tip from Lisa, teach your kids that they can’t always believe everything they hear (including what they see on TV).
  3. Be Heard
    Together we can make a difference. Urge Nickelodeon to implement a transparent policy for marketing to children that includes strong nutrition standards for all advertising and marketing through the company’s child-directed media. Ask Dairy Queen (or others) to improve their children’s meals. The CSPI is a great resource for other take-action initiatives.
  4. Don’t Give In
    By not spending your dollars on processed junk food, you aren’t supporting their cause and you aren’t contributing to future marketing dollars. This is the simplest action that every single one of us can start doing today.
  5. Get Your Kids Into the Kitchen
    Our team recently had the opportunity to hear Michael Pollan speak. One of his key points was that getting kids involved in the kitchen can be one of the most important things you do. From the most minimal tasks to actually preparing meals as they get older, get them started with the love (or at least understanding) of cooking. Cooking your own food and having your children participate helps you abstain from buying processed foods, including the ones marketed to kids. Here are 10 recipe ideas to get you started.

 Food Marketing To Kids from 100 Days of #RealFood

I’d love to hear your comments regarding what you do to monitor foods marketed to your kids.

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  • Comments

    1. Patricia |

      We don’t watch much actual tv or cable so that helps a lot. We found they just weren’t even watching it. We had Netflix for a while and then stopped it also. No cable other than internet usage. I haven’t had any “special requests” or “Mom you HAVE to see this!” in a very long time. The kids brought in a Boys Life (Scouts) magazine and showed me a Lego Robot and that’s the first toy I’ve heard about this year as well.

    2. |

      We cancelled our cable about 18 months ago. Although we ocassionally watch sports or news on a channel we get with an antenna, we don’t see much of the ads that specifically target our kids. When our kids watch shows, it’s on Netflix or Amazon Prime. They still get most of the Disney and Nick Jr shows that they like but we don’t have to deal with the “I want that!”. It’s also much cheaper than the cable so it’s a win-win all around.

    3. Dana C |

      It wasn’t food as much as toys that my son would ask for after watching a commercial. We got rid of cable and use the Roku to watch Hulu plus, Netflix, Amazon, and Vudu. I watch a lot less tv and my son doesn’t ask me to buy him sugary cereal.

    4. Tamara |

      Today my 4 yo came home from school and told me that her teacher told her to go to “old Mac Donald’s” to get a book. I looked in her home home folder and there was a flyer from the famous fast food retailer about supporting reading in children. They are giving away books and ice cream to the children to support reading. Obviously my daughter thought the teacher was referring to a farm and I didn’t correct her. I’m a little upset by this since this is the 3rd time this year that McDonald’s has sponsored some kind of even with the school.

    5. Katie Kraus |

      My daughter just started Pre-K and I must say, her eating habits are getting horrible. We don’t watch tv, sometimes Netflix but she knows all the Disney characters from books, so she does ask to buy snacks at the store with disney on it, I just say no, its not good for your theeth or tummy, it will make you sick. BUT tomorrow they will have a Halloween party and the school is buying snacks (cupcakes and cheez-its!!) We live in a crazy world (I guess MRs, Obama’s idea of getting kids healthy has not reached WV yet)… my point, even though I try my hardest and there are NO commercials at my house, my daughter still gets the idea sugary and unhealthy food is considered an ok snack! And to honest I don’t always want her to stand on the outside so I told the teacher to at least take off the icing… its a battle, but every small step counts =)

    6. Maigen |

      I have had an uphill battle since I have started school, with my daughter, not so much my son. We really watch TV with limited commercials/none but they do see them when they go to Grandma’s house. The big issue is that my daughter sees the lunches that the other kids bring to school. I have heard them tell of kids with family-sized bags of chips for lunch, cookies + chocolate chip granola bars. I have seen first hand jello packs, pudding packs, “fruit juice” boxes, and lunchables (all in one lunch box). I work in health care and I am trying to educate my kids on healthy choices. I have asked the school to introduce a “be sweet” policy at holiday times rather than “give sweets” following last years St. Valentine’s Day fiasco where my kids were SO hopped up on candy that I couldn’t give them the chocolate-covered strawberries I had ready for them after dinner. I was DISGUSTED and so DISAPPOINTED. They are happily adopting the policy and sent home a letter this year asking for beads not food (for a craft). My issue is that my daughter will gladly accept cookies that other kids will give her (there is a school policy of no-sharing, but a new child started and my daughter was sitting beside her, I am sure, “eyeing” her cookies. I am by no means hard-core. The kids get treats. I do not believe in treats everyday. Frankly, I do not have cookies in the house or ice cream because I will eat them. Even home-made, I will eat. So I put limits on availability to help me stick to healthy choices. But there are treats – the best version I can find (and sometimes not). To be honest, I am usually out of money by the time treat-buying comes around too, because it is a not on my shopping list, and not a priority! BUT the teacher now wants to talk to me about the cookie incident. I am hoping she is not going to ask that I send cookies. I do not want my child to think she gets a treat every day. Treats are treats. I am trying to teach her that she eat a treat “once in a while.” But food tastes good and is inherently rewarding. And of course, who wants an apple when you see a chocolate chip cookie or a lollipop. I am worried that because she “feels” deprived, I am turning her into someone who will have an eating-disorder or resents me for a deprived childhood (the latter is what worries me most – resentment I can handle because if it isn’t this, it will be something else – one of the perks of being a parent!). I discussed with her that the issue wasn’t the cookie, it was breaking the school’s rule of not sharing food. She had to eat lunch alone as a consequence the next day. I also pointed out that there are other kinds of treats that she gets (e.g., pumpkin pie) and also trips to fun places. Any advice? I do get on a soapbox about healthy eating, and how sugar can make you unhealthy and how your brain needs good food to grow. So I admit I do put down processed food. But in doing so, am I inadvertantly putting HER down and this is what she is internalizing? Somehow SHE is BAD because SHE really wants this kind of food?

      • Katie Kraus |

        I know how you feel, Im also afraid that my daughter will start resenting me because she is the only one not allowed to eat certain foods. she also has kids in her class that will bring so much crap food in there lunchboxes it just wants me to smack their parents. Just the other day she told me her friend brought cheese popcorn, a muffin and something else sweet for lunch? Who does that to their child?? Anyway, same problems here… If you find a good approach let me know. I try to be just honest with her ( shes only 4 but I figured being honest never hurts) so I tell her the sweets I make are better, that storebought candy has color and other stuff in it that will make you sick. mommy wants only the best for you to live a long and healthy live, and finally just because everybody else is doing it you don’t have to do it, you wouldn’t (here I try to find kid friendly examples lol) you wouldn’t eat dirt just because everybody else is doing it, right? …. it works sometimes but you are right a cookie does look better than an apple =)

      • Kiran Dodeja Smith |


        First off, kudos to you for continuing to stay strong with your message. That is the best that we, as parents, can do! I also struggle with your concerns; I think that we all do. BUT, my kids actually made my day the other day. I stopped buying Goldfish about 18 months ago. They begged me to and would look longingly at them … but I tried to stay strong. The other day, my 9 year-old told me that at Girl Scouts someone gave her Goldfish for their snack and that she realized that she didn’t like the taste as much. Out of my 4 kids, she has been my toughest re: changing her palate/etc. My 7 year-old piped in that she agreed; she had had some at a playdate a few weeks ago and she also didn’t like the taste as much as she used to. I don’t doubt for one second that my kids would choose a cookie over an apple, but if offered the same choice again and again, I want them to know which one will be better for their bodies, will give them energy, and which will make them feel good. My point – DON’T GIVE UP. As parents, it’s our job to educate and equip our kids the best that they can … then we have to trust that they will make their own choices. Cheers to you; you are doing a great job as a mom!

    7. Melissa Schilling |

      I also have a 4 yr old. She started preschool this year we ended taking her out of the school for a few different reasons. We took her to meet the teacher and my husband & I had a few questions that we went over. They feed the kids breakfest,lunch and snack. She gave me the menu so I glanced over it. Then teacher told us that we could pack her own food but we were not allowed to pack junk. After looking at the menu I almost started laughing. I was about to ask what do you think you are feeding them? But I was a Christian daycare so I didnt say anything. An example for 1 day was breakfest doughnut and fruit juice. Lunch: Pizza and canned fruit and milk, snack: juice and teddy grams cookies. The problem is the school food is all junk processed food!! My daughter is going to pick the junk food that the school is giving her over my healthy food. We need to start changing what the schools are aloud to feed our kids!!

    8. |

      I think this issue of what the food industry says is healthy and what actually is healthy is so important. I noticed 100DaysofRealFood has been referring to negative comments they are getting in FB posts and I want to say that’s too bad people react that way. This page is such a great resource for people like me that felt very overwhelmed once I really started reading labels. My son is sensitive to dyes and it has led us over time to cut out processed foods which the whole family has benefited from – see my post to hear more about our discovery Keep up the good work and all the controversial posts that keep Real Food being a Real Discussion about what we eat! Many of us are listening:)

      Nicole @

    9. Angi Burns |

      I am new to the healthy eating always blamed time and convienence starting making my sons lunch by middle school just because it was cheaper. Now its a necessity for health to change. I have found many recipes for cheeze nip and gold fish that are whole grain no preservitives and when i shared they liked them better than the store bought.

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