November/December 2020

Children’s food tastes evolving at earlier ages than previous generations
By Melanie Epp, Contributing Writer

Think back to when you were a kid. What was your favorite snack? What emotional connection or memories surface when you recall eating that snack? Chances are your favorite snack connects with you on a deeper level and brings back a flood of happy memories. That, said David Lemley, brand strategist at Retail Voodoo and keynote speaker at the Food for Kids Summit, is what you’re trying to create in a beloved brand.

What do kids want?

To create a beloved brand for kids, we first have to understand what kids want from food brands. Between the ages of 0 and 2, food acceptance is based on taste, texture and familiarity, explained Lemley. Taste should be simple and texture smooth. While babies are discovering food, they are reassured by familiarity.

Once they reach the toddler stage (3-5), children go for brands that are more fun and playful, while sticking within the confines of what’s familiar and reassuring.

This all changes once kids hit school age (6-8). “From first grade on, kids want brands that not only give them taste, fight off hunger and provide comfort, and keep them from looking like babies to their peers,” said Lemley. “It’s a constant evolution of needing to belong both in the family and within the social construct away from Mom and Dad.

“What kids want from a food brand socially is complex,” he continued. “And that complexity comes much sooner today than it did in previous generations. Sadly, the age of innocence is now 8 versus 11 just a decade ago.”

The dietary habits of America’s children are — let’s face it — not great. In 2019, the average child under the age of 12 consumed 49 pounds of sugar. The obesity rate for kids, aged 5-9, is predicted to be 26% by 2030. Adolescents, children, aged 8-18, spend an average of more than six hours each day watching some sort of screen. 

In 2020, though, kids are facing even more extraordinary circumstances. “COVID-19 has every kid battling some degree of isolation, and with it, some form of depression,” said Lemley.

“Furthermore, the social unrest in the current political climate that is affecting all of us is affecting our kids too,” he added. “Add to that income instability and the potential for food insecurity, and you have 2020.”

So how do you show love to someone who is quarantined, scared of unrest and potentially living with income instability? Lemley suggests you can do it through food.

The current environment has amplified several food trends this year, including convenience, wellness, comfort and values. Shopping trends that remain in focus include: inspection of ingredients, lower sugar content, allergens and ease of self-serve. Diminishing trends include: on-the-go products, product sampling and social sharing. Opportunities for brands include a focus on innocence, normalcy, connection and belonging.

“Beloved brands are tools we buy to show people we love them,” Lemley emphasized at the end of his talk.

Real talk from real parents

What do real parents think? To answer that question, the Food for Kids Summit turned to a consumer panel made up of six American parents. They were asked about everything from changes in the kitchen during lockdown to shopping habits to marketing and branding trends.

The pandemic has created much change in American family homes. Kitchen tables have become school desks, and quiet corners have become workstations. The kitchen has perhaps seen the most change, as parents find themselves preparing more meals and snacks than they were before.

Anum Bartolotta, an engineer working for a pharmaceutical company in South Florida, has two young children. She says she prefers to do her shopping in person, especially for fresh produce. She goes alone and shops infrequently.

As a busy mom, Bartolotta admits that she goes for packaged food more often than she should. However, she does try to mimic favorite brands to gain better control over the ingredients.

Betsy Ellen Ross is an avid home cook and vegetarian. She has a young son under the age of three who she calls a “good eater.” He is adventurous and generally likes what he eats. The family eats sit-down meals together where nothing is pre-portioned, allowing her son to choose what he puts on his plate. Allowing this choice is crucial to his development, said Ross.

Based near Chicago, art director and designer Dan Leu has a 2 1/2-year old son who loves cheese puffs and yogurt drinks. Leu took over the shopping when the pandemic began. While his family regularly chooses organic, he’s not opposed to making a switch when the products are unavailable. Leu considered online shopping, but doesn’t like not being able to choose his own produce, which is often closer to the expiration date than desired.

Leu is an avid label reader and likes to know what’s in the package he’s buying. He looks for a number of ingredients and ingredients he can read and understand.

When asked about packaging, Leu complained that there were no drink options for kids with travel cups. Everything that’s made for kids is over-packaged, he said.

Katie Brandt, a health reporter, lives in Chicago with her husband and toddler son. Her goal is to try to find creative ways to make sure the family diet is filled with whole and colorful foods. In recent months, Brandt started batch cooking so she would have quick, easy meals on hand as needed. But she’s always looking for new and interesting options.

Mom of three Ryan Swanson works as an attorney in Georgia. Although she loves to cook, she refers to herself as a “short-order cook” since not everyone eats the same meal at the same time. Must-haves in her house include mini cucumbers, pizza and tacos. She often puts a variety of items on the table and lets her kids choose what they want. Flexibility is key in her house.

Like the other panelists, Swanson is a careful scrutinizer of labels. She stays away from food dyes, high-fructose corn syrup and canola aisle. When she shops, she sticks to the perimeter of the supermarket, opting for fresh over packaged products. Her husband, however, tackles shopping in a different manner, opting for snacks and convenience items. 

Director of engineering at the Art Institute of Chicago Nikhil Trivedi has a 5-year-old son who loves to help in the kitchen. While Trivedi admits he was once content with serving bread and pasta after a long day at work, now that he’s back in the kitchen he’s noticed that his son likes the diversity in his diet. He, too, mimics brands, making chicken fingers from scratch so his son understands, culturally, what they are.

Trivedi has enjoyed the return to the kitchen, but mentioned being “fatigued” and in a “food rut.” He’s also looking for new and interesting options. Trivedi said he wishes there weren’t so many cartoons on packaged foods. He stays away from buying these products because he wants his son to appreciate food for food.

What we learn from these panelists is that when it comes to feeding our children, today’s priorities include flexibility, convenience and health. Parents are much less attracted to packaging, and spend time poring over ingredient labels. They want their kids to have the personal freedom to explore food, but don’t want them getting hooked on brands.

— By Melanie Epp, contributing writer

Top photo: Pappels from The Greenery, on display at Fruit Logistica, is a fresh produce meal kit brand designed for small children. Photo: Melanie Epp


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