Any parent who’s ever taken a child grocery shopping knows the power of marketing. If a child sees a product with a beloved character on it – Dora, Elmo, Spongebob, you name it – that child will immediately request demand it. There is no question about it, food marketing works.
So, as parents, how can we harness the power of marketing to help our kids make healthy choices? Fortunately, there is some great research being done on the topic to guide us.
I had the pleasure of hearing David Just, a professor of behavioral economics at Cornell University present at a conference last week. One thing he said really stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing here because I’m a terrible note-taker, but he said something along the lines of this.
“Every food is marketed, whether intentional or not. When we serve a food, like fruit, in a brown paper bag, we are sending the message to our children that we don’t care enough to make this food appealing to them.”
So true. I’ve never been one to go out of my way to create bento-style masterpieces with my kids’ food, but I’ve definitely seen first-hand with my kids what a difference a nice presentation can make.
Here are just a few of the ways that Dr. Just and his colleagues have found to be effective in getting kids to choose fruit and vegetables more often. All of these ideas are easily replicable in your own kitchen:
- Put a sticker on it: In one study, kids were given a choice between an apple and a cookie. The kids overwhelming chose the cookie. But when an Elmo sticker was placed on the apple, the kids nearly doubled their choice of an apple. [Keep reading to see what happened when I tried this with my own kids.]
- Superhero wannabe’s: In another study of kids at fast food restaurants, kids were shown photos of admirable characters (like Batman) and less admirable ones, then asked “Would this person choose apples or fries?” By simply asking this question, 45 percent of the kids choose apple slices over French fries, a significantly higher number than kids who weren’t shown admirable characters.
- Name power: In one study of elementary school students, kids ate twice as many of carrots if they were given the name “X-ray Vision Carrots” than if they were just identified as “food of the day.” The number of kids who chose broccoli increased by 109 percent and those who chose green beans increased by a whopping 177 percent by giving them fun names like “Power Punch Broccoli” and “Silly Dilly Green Beans.”
Given that Dr. Just is not only an expert at using the power of marketing to help kids make healthier choices in places like schools, but also has four children of us his own, I asked him what he does in his own home to help motivate his kids. His (paraphrased) response? “Keep a big bowl of fruit within eyesight and move cereals and snacks to a higher shelf out of reach.” Pretty simple, yet effective advice.
So, what happened when I tried the Elmo sticker on an apple trick?
First, I gave it to my daughter and asked her to hold it up so I could take a picture of it. She ignore me and immediately went in for a bite.
My 4-year-old son was literally chomping at the bit, wanting to try it, too. Of course, it was the last apple in the house, and certainly the only one with an Elmo sticker on it, so they were forced to share. Here’s my son, taking a bite, warily eying his little sister, who is circling like a vulture.
Then, it became too much for my little one to handle and she dove in to try to snatch it. This resulted in the Great Apple War of 2013, complete with them screaming and hitting each other, all faster than I could put my camera down. Over an apple. An apple! Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.
Granted, I’m sure this little kerfuffle had as much to do with plain ol’ sibling rivalry, as much as the fact as there was an Elmo sticker on it. But the point is, they both desperately wanted to an eat an apple. And that’s really the end-goal: them choosing to eat a healthy food rather than me trying to force them to want it.