Kids think foods loaded with fat, sugar, and salt are meant for them. Advertising and school menus have a lot to do with that. Children food advocate Bettina Elias Siegel explains why the term "kid food" needs to end and offers tips parents can use to help their child's eating habits.

By Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD
Updated December 10, 2019

There's nothing wrong with chicken nuggets and pizza—unless those foods become staples of kids' diets at the expense of less processed foods. That’s also the case if those foods dominate school menus and food marketers tell parents that these items are all their kids will eat.

Illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Courtesy of Commercial Food Systems, Inc. (1); Getty Images (1); Courtesy of Domino's (1)

Those are some of the warnings in the new book Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children In A Highly Processed World by Bettina Elias Siegel, an advocate for issues pertaining to children and food. The mom of two, who runs the popular blog The Lunch Tray, explains what's so bad about kid food—and what parents can do to turn the tide.

What is “Kid Food”?

By “kid food” we are rarely referring to baby carrots and applesauce. “What we seem to mean by ‘kid food’ in this country is hyper-palatable food made from simple carbs and/or loaded with fat, sugar, and salt,” says Siegel. “It also typically entices children away from healthier food with the promise of special ‘excitement’ or ‘fun’ via interesting or unusual shapes and colors, games printed on the box, the ability to play with the food in some way, and/or the use of popular cartoon characters.”

Food marketing is a big part of the problem. “The food and beverage industries annually spend close to $2 billion to aggressively market their products directly to kids, and research shows that the vast majority of those products are unhealthy,” says Siegel. At the same time, these industries are also marketing the same products to parents and often undermining their ability to determine what are actually healthy options for kids. In her book, Siegel points out some of the ways in which food companies can mislead parents, including often-meaningless product claims like "contains real fruit" and promoting self-funded studies.

And this messaging can really shape children’s views on food. A 2011 study found Canadian kids used words like “junk,” “fun shapes,” and “sugar” to refer to “kid food.” Adult food, on the other hand, was healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and meat.

Are Schools Making the Problem Worse?

While there are school nutrition directors across the country working hard to expand children's palates, says Siegel, school funding makes their goals difficult. “The federal school meal program is chronically underfunded, and each district's program is supposed to operate like an independent business without dipping into the district's general fund," she says. "That intense financial pressure, along with many other obstacles I describe in the book, can create some perverse incentives, and school nutrition directors often feel they must do whatever it takes to lure kids into the cafeteria."

That’s why, in school, kids are seeing items like Domino's Smart Slice pizza and packaged "copycat" foods, including whole grain-rich Pop-Tarts, Froot Loops for Schools, and Cheetos' Fantastix. “When kids see those items bearing their school's stamp of approval, along with carnival-food-style school menus, it only reinforces poor eating habits,” says Siegel.

What Can Parents Do to Help?

Truth is, “kid food” is crowd-pleasing and convenient, especially on a time crunch. But it’s being offered to children in many different contexts. “It starts to drive home a troubling message that ‘their’ food has to be bready, cheesy and fried, and that they're somehow incapable of accepting and enjoying less processed, healthier foods,” says Siegel.

How we offer these foods to our kids is part of the issue, she adds, and that's something parents can focus on. “If everyone at the table is sitting down to mac 'n cheese and fried chicken, that's just your family dinner. But if you're serving roasted chicken and steamed green beans for the adults, while microwaving mac 'n cheese and chicken nuggets for your children, then you're sending a very different message about what you believe your kids will or won't eat,” says Siegel. “The same is true in a restaurant, where you sit down to a soup and salad, but your child is only offered five unhealthy items on the kids' menu.”

Good news is parents can get involved to improve their child’s food environment. In Kid Food, Siegel offers 14 rules for effective face-to-face advocacy for parents who want to address immediate concerns. “These rules were drawn from success stories of real-life parent advocates around the country, and it's my hope that parents will feel supported and empowered by them,” she says. For example, one of her rules is "Don't Go Over People's Heads." If you're concerned about candy given to students in the classroom, approach the teacher first (not the principal). Dismayed by the soccer snacks? Begin by talking to the coach, not the league director. It's better to give the person closest to the issue a chance to work with you, she says—then you can move up the ladder if you don't get anywhere.

But the problems of advertising and school lunch programs are nearly impossible for any parent to combat on their own. “My hope is that Kid Food will also raise a little political awareness, inspiring parents to start asking their elected officials about these issues, and to start using the ballot box to make our children's world a healthier, happier place,” says Siegel.

Read more in Siegel's book Kid Food.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a Contributing Editor and registered dietitian who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids and Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

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