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)?

food-marketing-to-kids

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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41 thoughts on “Food Marketing to Kids (and what you can do about it)”

  1. Fantastic tips – thanks for sharing =) I totally agree. Parents should teach their kids to start paying more attention to what’s inside the package, as opposed to outside the package, to be curious early on and make informed decisions.

  2. 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.

  3. 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. 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 @ HoldtheOffice.com

  4. 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!!

  5. 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?

    1. 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 =)

    2. Kiran Dodeja Smith

      Maigen,

      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!

  6. 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 =)

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. The only time we see commercials with the kids is during football. We mute them, and my husband says, “What do we not like?” The response is “commercials!” “What do we like?” “Football!” We otherwise just watch the occasional DVD or PBS show.

    My husband HATES commercials (as a kid, his parents had a VHS tape of commercials that they plopped him in front of to “entertain” him while they did other stuff or slept). We talk about how commercials are silly and try to make us buy stuff we don’t really need or want.

  12. While my kids never really watched commercial TV (we went from videos to Netflix), that is only half the battle. We also introduced them to vegetable gardening before they could walk and have included them in cooking since they were toddlers. In restaurants we never ordered from the children’s menu. Instead, we selected interesting items from the appetizers for them such as calamari or guacamole or salad. If they grow up eating interesting real food, they question the ingredients in packaged products. If my daughter (age 11) wants a sugary treat, she will read the ingredients list & sometimes decide it isn’t worth it (but sometimes it is). We have to protect our kids and teach them, but then slowly let them decide. Neither of my kids will eat sugary cereals or packaged snack cakes- which is their choice while they are at school with vending machines.

  13. Just say no.

    We avoided the TV but they do grow up. They do go to friends homes. They learn it’s out there. One thing a good friend of mine did was let her children pick out ANY cereal they wanted for their birthday. It was a clever idea and it was something they all looked forward too.

  14. OMG– I limit the screen time too but until recently my kids only watched Disney Jr. which thankfully shows ads for their own shows and not commercials. Recently the kids wanted to watch Nick Jr. and became hooked. I try to turn it off before the commercials because now they want everything! Our simple trips to Target have turned into 20 minutes of asking for new toys. They haven’t asked about food yet, but my 6 year old did tell me all about a new mop I could buy that would make cleaning easier, lol. How’s that for effective advertising?

    Nicole @ HoldtheOffice.com

  15. My son also had a health class on advertising and food choices when he was in 2nd grade that was very helpful and we often talk about good food choices at home. He shops with me at farmers markets so he can help pick fruits and vegetables. While we do limit TV for a variety of reasons and I support limiting kids exposure to advertising (both of unhealthily foods and rampant consumerism) we need to remember that in most cases it is the adults who bring the food into the house. Kids can’t eat what isn’t there! We need to remember that we as the adults are in charge. I am very grateful that my son really doesn’t pest for unhealthy food. He is a great eater of good for you good. But even when he does bug at the store we look at the ingredients together, discuss it but in the end Mom has veto power!!! I really like all the food options offered on this site. We have really enjoyed all the ideas and new dishes we have tried. Thanks!!!

  16. I think getting the kids into the kitchen at an early age is the best way to educate them on what kind of food is healthier for them. Also, taking trips to farmers’ markets, and giving them healthier options to eat home when they’re hungry between meals can work too.

  17. I think it is important to teach kids to think critically about what is being marketed to them (both food and toys!). I love the ideas for the games suggested above. In addition, there is a youtube video called “House Hippo” that reinforces the idea of not believing everything you see on television that I’ve found to be helpful to drive home the point:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TijcoS8qHIE

  18. We avoid commercials at our house, but our kids still see marketing everywhere. We have frank conversations about whether or not the statement is true. We look at the products together, and more often than not, my kids figure it out on their own. We usually walk away feeling stronger because we know we haven’t been duped by marketing!

  19. I have a four month old and dread the near future when I will have millions of marketing dollars and addictive substances working against my efforts to give my son a healthy lifestyle. It’s one thing to provide him only healthy foods and quite another to equip him with the knowledge AND desire to make healthy choices for himself despite our food industry’s efforts to suck him in at a young age and have a customer for life. I appreciate the helpful advice you give not only on providing healthy foods but also on helping to foster good choice making in kids.

    Specifically I have a question about white sugar. I like to bake on occasion and would love to replace refined sugar with a natural and less processed alternative. What are some affordable alternatives? (You may have already posted on this and I missed it)

    1. The best choices are fruits (think mashed banana, dates…), maple syrup, honey, and even coconut sugar. If you want to use white sugar for a treat buy cane sugar (which is not gm – beet sugar is gm, organic sugar, or succanet which is slightly less processed). In general, limit all sugars for health.

    2. fruit and maple syrup. Please do not use honey in any food that you feed your baby until they are a year old! Honey can be dangerous to infants.

  20. Is there a children’s channel in America that doesn’t advertise stupid toys and sugary cereals? What channels (and/or shows) do you nutrition-conscious parents approve for your kids to watch? I’m ready to throw our whole electronic entertainment set-up out the window!!!

    1. It depends on what sort of television package you have. The Disney Channel only advertises it’s own programming (no food or toys). Some areas have a kids-programming-only PBS station.

      And there’s always Netflix. No ads at all.

    2. We do not have cable, only an antennae. We get PBS and they have a kids substation that does not have advertisement. I’m glad that my daughter as she gets older won’t be watching Nickelodeon!

    3. Sarah- only PBS in America doesn’t have commercials, as far as network television. We do not have cable in my home, nor an antenna, we only have what is called Sky Angel. It is “IPTV” or internet provider TV…the Sky Angel box is essentially a wireless modem, and is hooked up to the broadband internet and the tv. It is all faith based and family oriented programming. None of the children’s channels have any advertising, other than literally two commercials for Little Tykes and one other toy company. Other than that, absolutely no food commercials or anything else. My kids barely have any idea of mainstream programming, except for what they see outside this home. They also don’t know about junk food or fast food enough to want it. Home is where they learn truth, and I know the media all too well to let it infiltrate my children’s lives. Sky Angel is easily found online. Hope this helps!

  21. Imagine what the $2 billion the junk food industry spends on advertising could do to reduce the staggering number of children who go hungry in America everyday… Thank you for this post. Eye-opening!

  22. Here, In Australia, we have children’s channels without any advertising (except show promos) so I can be confident my kuds aren’t getting food messages from there. Of course I still limit their t.v time and content but with net flix I wonder if there’s much need to have chikdren watching on commercial channels anyway.

  23. One thing we do when we see commercials that are advertising foods (or any products!) that they say will make you more likeable, or more attractive, give you more energy, etc. is we yell out loud at the TV, “That’s a load of crap!” Then we talk about why it’s not true.

  24. When I was in 6th grade, I had to watch 25 commercials and write what each one was literally saying or showing, then decide how realistic it was. For example, if you drink this beer a dozen bikini models will want to hang out with you on your speedboat. That lesson stuck with me (23 years later) and I turned it into a game to play with my daughter when she was about 5. Very effective!

    1. Kiran Dodeja Smith

      Kiyah – we couldn’t agree more. Great minds think alike! And if we work together on this, we can all make a difference:).

  25. I have seen first hand that it is possible to keep kids from wanting this. By keeping my daughter away from the television before age 3, and then only limited DVR after that (no commercials), she has never asked me for a packaged food. I ask her what she wants from the grocery and she will say bananas, bagels, or melon. Don’t get me wrong, she still loves carbs, but her “treats” are very innocent.
    I did not do this on purpose – the TV was avoided on purpose but the avoiding packaged foods was a byproduct.
    It is so fun to cook with her and it’s so important to vote with our dollars to avoid character branded food. It’s easy if you’re following in Lisa’s footprints … but if you still eat the occasional store bought packaged food, just aim for store brand that doesn’t have kids’ characters on it!

    1. We did the same, and my son also doesnt know about packaged food for the most part. Another wonderful benefit of no Tv.

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