Using Marketing Methods to ‘Sell’ Kids Healthier Food

copy-2-of-dig-in-closeup.jpgAugust 11, 2015 Update Check out these 31 healthy ideas for kids’ snacking by Play Fuel which draw from industry marketing tactics as well!

On a “how low can you go” level of problematic food industry sidewinders, today UConn Rudd Center released the 98pp report on how kids of color are particularly targeted with junk food, soda. (78% of Spanish TV targeted kids with junk, black targeting fact sheet) See #SaludTues thread on Twitter for more data and revealing, gobsmackingly head banging profiteering over public health sans unchecked policy and practices! All the more reason to use clever ‘industry practices’ turned on themselves toward HEALTH!

When I was speaking at the Preteen Alliance event last week on “creative tactics to get kids to eat right” I showed this video clip I created on body image, and should have added THIS video on Shaping Youth’s junk food deconstruction for media literacy…alas, we ran out of time!

Two of the visuals in the first video were pulled from Parents magazine’s food section, showing clever ways to ‘sell vegetables’ in potted plants (hummus as the base ‘soil,’ wheat crackers as the potting mix etc., see photo) which is clever but not exactly the ‘pack your lunch on the go’ kind of realism when it comes to REAL life moms unless you’re Martha Stewart or Rachael Ray.

Granted, there are some very cool ‘edible arrangements’ of fruit and such, which are great for parties, kids’ fare, ordering for school events, but day to day dining is a challenge at best, since many busy parents default to ‘processed pouch food’ out of sheer time-sinks.

Personally, I’ve found the ‘half sandwich, half salad’ pre-packs at Trader Joe’s a godsend when I’m time-slammed, but that’s not always practical/cost-effective either, especially if you have a whole brood to feed.

So what’s a parent to do? I mean besides swapping tips in forums, reading great kids’ nutrition blogs, checking in with dietary experts…and tossing together what I call my favorite ‘cheater recipes’ that are fast-n-easy-n-healthy. (like dumping chinese chicken salad dressing on pasta, frozen peas to keep it cold, waterchestnuts and cashews for crunch and calling it dinner)

How do we switch kids to a healthier track?

As Erma Bombeck once said, “My kids would never eat something that hasn’t danced on TV.”

sandwich-cups.jpgAt Shaping Youth, we say fight fire with fire.

Use the same strategies marketers use to spin the message in reverse. (like our ‘Get kids to eat green; use Shrek against his drek’ hands-on counter-marketing game)

We use the popularity of mass media turned on itself to hawk healthy food, shift harmful body image messages and deprogram the junk coming at kids round-the-clock.

Here are a few ‘take home tips’ to get you started in selling healthier food using marketing methods…

Use appealing packaging and presentation to make good food fun.


  • Packaging/Presentation: Food magically becomes ‘cute’ when nestled in its own cubicle: hard-boiled eggs, banana chubs, melon balls, Clementines, potstickers, shumai dumplings, strawberries, baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, nuts & seeds, you name it…We wrote about the Japanese bento boxes and marvelous kids presentation, but again, pragmatically, who has the time for that level of detail? Even the whole wheat toasted ‘sandwich cups’ (baked in muffin tins) in the visual shown above are ‘special occasion items vs. regular fare…Still:
  • It’s amazing what a few divided compartments of plastic can do. (Think Lunchables only with healthy food inside)
  • Save the planet and your pocketbook with reusable ‘gear’ for buildable meals like tacos or Caesar salads in divided plastic units like camping/sailing gear, sewing or makeup kits (we all know the ‘too cool for school’ need to ‘blend’ in the brown bag mode, but we’re big on ‘marketing green’ as it’s a win-win for the kids to self-identify in a positive way with healthy food/reusable containers, and go green (inside and out)


  • Gimmicks: Kids love anything layered, dipped, skewered, rolled, stamped, spread or built themselves; so try fruit kabobs, yogurt parfaits, (blueberries/granola etc.) salad shakers in a cup with separate dressing & toppings to add (dried fruit, nuts, feta) layered lunches w/simple starters (flat shell or pita pocket to stuff w/black beans, cheese, salsa etc.) or any kind of wrap or swirly aram rollup. Easy kid-pleaser: take a flour tortilla, slather with light cream cheese, add cukes, or meat/cheese of your choice (alt/PB&J) roll up and cut into swirly faux arams)


  • Trial-size: Minis & build-your-owns are always a hit: Try tiny cocktail breads w/nut spreads, mini-bagels w/cream cheese & cucumbers, dinner roll sandwiches, mini-bran, corn, or oatmeal muffins, mini-quiche, mini-rice cakes, mini-pot pies from cupcake tins, etc.


  • Offer incentives to make food changes. Let kids know you know it’s hard to make food changes. Don’t completely outlaw beloved treats, just give incentives for healthier ones. Say, for every five times she tries a new vegetable, s/he gets out of clearing the table or something. (I’ve stolen great ideas from Cafe Pesto in Hawaii where their ‘keiki’ kids menu gets kids to try new flavors, sauces and spices earning ‘points’ to exchange for a tropical smoothie of their choice, etc.)


  • Knock-Offs & Look Alikes: Mirror the masses with healthier fare: Pack a baguette ‘sub,’ ‘soda’ of 100% OJ, seltzer water & a lemon squeeze, snack packs with organic leathers, popcorn, cheese, trail mix, pretzels, faux Lunchables stamped out of cookie cutters with healthier whole grain offerings


  • New Product Intros! Train their palates and opens their minds by introducing new flavors. Pack easy noodle bowls, like chinese chicken dressing splashed on pasta (w/frozen peas to keep it cold) pesto pizza triangles, hummus and spinach wraps, or Italian crostini; consider introducing new foods regularly as part of a “foreign trip” to keep their palates adventurous.


  • Do You Fondue? Introduce a do-it —yourself dinner that’s fun and healthy and unusual; fun after school project to intro broth-based foods on a stick. and exotic flavors, sauces, etc.


  • Cultural Fair: Just like our middle school gym sets up with tasty culinary ‘travels around the world’, neighbors/tweens can share their culture, heritage, favorite foods and do a swap-n-stop in progressive dinner style…fun for book clubs, neighborhoods, classroom events, using the potluck approach


  • Getting Kids to Eat Green: Much like our ‘Using Shrek against his drek’ session we themed everything green (pesto pasta, cilantro salsa, green tomatillo, guacamole ‘swamps’ etc. to get kids to forage for fare in a green theme…we’ve done this with reds, oranges, yellows, etc. too; great fun, kids eat it up!)


  • California ‘Squisine’: Purees, sauces, veggies, dips in a squeeze bottle, smoothies and creative concoctions and recipes they make themselves…we’re testing out Malcolm Kushner’s book now and will review it soon…some big hits for younger kids particularly, plus, I met the author and he’s hilarious; definitely knows his kid stuff.

What are some of the ideas YOU use to get kids eating healthier?

I can’t wait until we can share our “Dare to Compare: A Gross Out Game for Good Nutrition” with the rest of the world in open source internet style, because we’ve geared it to various ages and stages using counter-marketing tactics that kids helped us create! Wish us luck with the film/funding and finance prototypes next week…

Visual Credits: Parents Magazine

A few related Shaping Youth posts

Selling Healthy Kids Cuisine Through Product Presentation

Get Kids to Eat Green: Using Shrek Against His Drek

Get Kids to Eat Like An Ape: The Media Circus At Work 

Snack Attack: Counter-Marketing Unhealthy Sports Team Offerings

Cool Digital Tool Shows What Nutrients YOUR Body Needs

Shaping Youth’s Gross Out Game for Good Nutrition

Hiding Kids Veggies for Stealth Health: Good Idea?

Earn Cash by Not Eating Trash? IBM Pays Off Kids’ Wellness (Incentives)

Test Your School Junk Food IQ With This Quick Quiz

Food for Thought: Media to Digest for Healthier Kids

Will Kids Go For the FryPod? Brandwashing Nutritious Fare

Lifestyle Cancers: Two Most Preventable Causes Harming Kids

Fumin’ Fuji Meets Shaping Youth: Food Marketing to Kids

Forbidden Fruit & Kids’ Food Advertising: FTC & KFF Compare

Online Media: Nutrition Calculator Helps Parents




  1. Not an idea, but an observation. I was at my parents house last weekend and noticed the grapes my mom had came in a bag with Mickey Mouse on them. I was stunned, and a little disturbed that I was eating Disney grapes…but if it would get non fruit eaters/buyers to eat/buy them then I guess I’m all for it.

    What I would like to see are healthier kids menu items at restuarants. I was with my nephews last weekend at a decent sit-down mostly seafood restaurant and mozzerella sticks with french fries was one of the kids menu options! How about a kid-sized portion of some of the adult dishes instead?

  2. yep, Disney got into that branding game quite awhile ago, I wrote a post about it here (one of my first ones!) called “Coaxing Kids with Cartoon characters”

    Here’s an excerpt with my take on it:
    “From an ad spin perspective it’s a brilliant first strike, .with Nickelodeon chirping, “we’re trying to see how many places we can use our characters to encourage kids to eat more fruits and vegetables.”Uh-huh. Okay. Then could you please remove all of the grinning critters and gizmos from all of the sugary cereals and snack slop so they’re ONLY on fruit and veggies, please? That’s the only way that statement would remotely pass the sniff test. Otherwise, consumers are just being hammered by more cartoons on more products to get more kids to power whine and pester parents in new places. The produce aisle used to be the only ‘safe zone’ to navigate a cart without watching some toddler toss a hissy for cartoon packaging of some kind.

    All the cartoon biggies are now entering the ‘good for you’ game…Nickelodeon. Disney. Warner Bros. Sesame Workshop. They’re licensing characters for grapes, pears and produce faster than you can say smoothie. Some blend into the mix better than others, like Bugs Bunny chomping carrots. But Elmo pitching green beans? Cookie Monster hawking corn? This blitz goes beyond logical marketing matches, this is all about volume, scale, saturation and spin…”

    That said…overall I agree with you, if we can use it to hawk healthy food (like our ‘getting kids to eat green/using Shrek against his drek’ bit then let’s go for it…but to shift behavior it needs to be ONLY on the good for you stuff, or they’ll default to the ‘bad’)

    p.s. The kids meals/restaurant food are a post in itself…whew…we’ve been hammering away against the ‘nugget & corn dog’ mentality but it’s all ‘baby steps’ toward change…sigh. Not fast enough I say! 🙂

    Thanks, Laura for taking the time to comment…

  3. Thanks for that. We’re having a big potluck party next week, for Christmas I guess and I’ve been trying to find something unique.. found some awesome ideas at this potluck recipe site. You know, someone should invent a website where you can write what you’ll be taking, and it would make sure no one is bringing the same thing!

  4. I like that idea…they did it for prom dresses on Facebook where kids could post photos of their dresses so there wouldn’t be duplicates…I’m sure there’s somethin out there that does that! 🙂

  5. Some of these ideas are so cute! At our magazine there are many girls that show interest in cooking, but at age 8-15 not many of them seem especially concerned about nutrition. Some of these ideas, such as the “lunchables” created out of divided reusable containers and the faux subs and sodas seem like they would be really quick and effective. Great post!

  6. Thanks Nancy et al…feel free to repost on or your allied networks, as you have ‘reprint rights’ as an affiliate! heh.

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