The preteen lunch bunch: Selling healthy choices


“I don’t know what you said to my kids but they’re calling soda “liquid candy” and sports drinks “Hummers in a bottle” for the ‘overkill’ factor.” Ah, music to my ears.

Shaping Youth’s hallmark is counter-marketing, so I could barely contain my glee when I caught wind of this after one of our ‘m-power’ enrichment programs. To his credit, Dr. David Katz at Yale coined that ‘Hummer’ term in a great piece called “Sports Drinks, Who Needs Them?” so we borrowed it for the zing.

It had the ‘aha’ impact akin to our “poison potion/Dare to compare” demo where we used high drama shock value to get kids to think beyond neon-colored eye-candy and the appealing blitz of brands.

Gatorade green looks like antifreeze, Powerade’s bright blue doubles for glass cleaner, so we lined ’em up to make the point that ingredients DO matter…KNOW what you’re putting in your body!

They’d picked up a glass hesitantly then say, “um, what’s REALLY in this?”

Yep. Exactly. Bingo!

Dr. Katz inspired our nutrition team to do an entire program on sports marketing and energy drinks, especially since the American Beverage Association is scrambling to replace sodas in schools with ‘healthier’ fare and voraciously market them at every big box retailer, grocer, mini-mart and vending machine.

They’re EVERYwhere.

His quick take? Unless you’re Lance Armstrong, you really don’t need ANY of this stuff. ESPECIALLY if sedentary kids are buying into the ‘aspirational athlete’ approach, in wannabe style.

Preteens don’t need to ‘hydrate’ by chugging extra salt and sugar. And they don’t need to swallow a dozen teaspoons of pure sugar in calcium-leaching, bone-weakening soda.

And yet…Middle-schoolers haul these drinks to lunch tables and after-school practices daily, along with “Vitamin water” and every other trendy concoction targeting tweens. (sports drinks alone racked up $5.4 billion in sales last year!)

Then there are the jolts of caffeine being marketed as “energy drinks” (Red Bull, Monster, an such, which I’ll write about later) My point is this:

We need to help kids sort out hype from health, and be aware of what we’re sanctioning.

When we plop ANY product into our kids’ lunches, they automatically assume they’re ‘good.’

And why wouldn’t they? They were put in that backpack by one who outweighs any nutritionist, fancy dietician, or PhD opinion…YOU! and will get you up to speed with fast food ‘Snacktoids,’ reveal the truth vs. trends and gutbusters clobbering kids on the obesity front. (Latest IOM study predicts in three years one-fifth of children will be obese, yikes!)

You can also plug into CSPI’s archives and get the scoop on entire categories of food and beverages. The best popcorns, yogurts, fast foods, whatever. They’ll give you the low down on brands, trends, types, treats, and shoot from the hip with a column called “food porn” vs. “right stuff.” (they earned their street cred as the “food police” for sure)

They also run the kids’ site where tweens can goof with interactive games like “Choose UR Chews”, “Feed the Face,” ‘sat-fat-o-meters’ and ‘cal-o-meters.’ They’re a hoot. (parents will like the recipes and lunch ideas)

Once you get the scoop, you can ‘sell’ kids more nutritious fare using the same tactics as the big leagues:

Presentation & Packaging: Have kids layer, dip, skewer, roll, spread, dunk, or build it themselves. Create kabobs, wraps, parfaits, pita pockets, swirly arams, salad shakers in a cup, or buildable meals like tostadas, tacos, chef salads.Use the ‘Lunchables cubicle concept’ to house ingredientslike olives, croutons, shredded cheese in divided plastic designed to keep stuff separate. Think about gear used for camping, sailing, sewing, jewelry…all have secure compartments to pack small stuff.

Gimmicks, Knock-Offs & Look Alikes: Minis are always a hit. Pack tiny cocktail breads w/nut spreads, mini-bagels w/cream cheese & cucumbers, dinner roll sandwiches, mini-oatmeal, corn, or bran muffins, mini-pot pies and quiche from cupcake tins. For soda substitutes, add a shot of seltzer to 100% juices: Apple, grape, OJ, are much healthier even with the fizz factor. For prefab snack packs, create your own with organic fruit leathers, popcorn, string cheese, trail mix, pretzels, etc.

“New/Improved/Try This!” Introduce a new flavor each week just like the big leagues. Train tween palates and open their minds with cold Asian noodle bowls, Italian crostini, pesto pizza, hummus dip, etc.

Earn Points/Adapt Ideas From Restaurants Cafe Pesto in my ol’ home state of Hawaii does a great job of coaxing kids to try things like bok choy or fresh herbs by steering kids toward healthier choices.

They use fun names (volcanic veggies) and smart industry tactics to ‘incentivize’ kids and keep them coming back for more. They offer a point system to try new flavors, then kids save up and swap ‘earned credits’ for a dessert favorite. (at home, shift the idea to chore amnesty or privileges for an even healthier trade)

Brown bag some mystery choices like jicama or mango. Scoop melon balls into colorful circles, snap-n-send.>

Freeze a smoothie to thaw by lunchtime and keep ’em guessing by sneaking in healthy ingredients. (bait them to see if they can ‘tell’ —tofu, wheat germ and yogurt all went undetected with our test crew)

Our work with tweens shows they’re eager to swallow good nutrition if we spin the message using a few tools of the trade. We’re up against $10 billion+ in food and beverage marketing…it’s time to get creative and fight fire with fire…Add fun.


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