Written by: Kristen DiFilippo, PhD, RDN
For many years, my oldest and youngest daughters exchanged meals when eating out. The youngest preferred adult menus from a very young age, while the oldest preferred the kids’ menu. Since they are 8 years apart, they found a solution in ordering each other and swapping meals. Most people express far more surprise at my younger daughter liking “adult food” than my older daughter wanting “kid food.” The reactions to their preferences reflect a culture that automatically expects kids to prefer certain foods based on their age.
Our notions of “kid” versus “adult” foods are rooted in social norms rather than nutritional needs (Rothpletz-Puglia, et al., 2022). Marketing often drives these categorizations. When examining typical kid foods most are highly processed items with high levels of saturated fat, sugar, and sodium. Eating a diet of kid foods limits variety and nutrient density. It also primes kids to grow up to prefer energy-dense foods.
The Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior provides recommendations for professionals to take to support a change in the social norms around kids’ foods (Rothpletz-Puglia, et al., 2022).
- Rename Kids’ Food. Instead of focusing on kids’ food, consider terms such as “moderate plates” or “family meals.” This helps shift the focus away from certain foods being just for kids and emphasizes the importance of moderation and family mealtimes.
- Build Cultural Capacity. Consider health inequities that contribute to poor nutrition outcomes including discrimination, structural racism, and socioeconomic status. Use a family-centered approach when working to support nutrition in children that focuses on strengths within the family and culture.
- Promote Healthy Restaurant Menu Options for Children. Restaurants can voluntarily participate in Kids LiveWell 2.0, an initiative that certifies restaurants that have kid’s menus that offer healthier options including limiting beverages to water, low-fat or non-fat milk, or 100% vegetable juice, eliminating trans fats, limiting added sugars and saturated fats, and reducing sodium (Sink, 2021).
- Promote Policy Solutions. Menu labeling laws are in place for chain restaurants and can promote population-level change in food choices.
- Create Mutually Beneficial Consumer Food Options. As my daughters showed, kids’ menus may not meet the desires of consumers. Offering moderate plates that include healthy options can support corporate goals of social responsibility. In addition, care should be taken to make sure descriptions of healthy food do not make the food appear less desirable to consumers.
- Develop Strategic Health Messaging. Health outcomes are often regarded as resulting from personal choice. Messaging around childhood nutrition should be reframed as a societal issue that considers the multiple levels of influence on what kids eat.
- Work with Communities and Families. Health professionals can support family meals to help support positive choices within the current food environment. Educators can promote the consumption of better choices such as a variety of fruits and vegetables. The benefits of family meals can be extensive. By supporting family meals, professionals can support better health outcomes for children and families.
Social norms around kids’ food promote the consumption of calorically dense foods. Changing the narrative away from child-specific foods to instead focus on family meals and moderate portions has the potential to support the consumption of nutrient-dense foods.
Rothpletz-Puglia, P., Fredericks, L., Dreker, M.R., Patusco, R., & Ziegler, J. (2022). Position of the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior: Healthful Food for Children is the Same as Adults. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 54(1):4-11.
Sink, V. (2021). National Restaurant Association Launches Kids LiveWell 2.0. National Restaurant Association. https://restaurant.org/research-and-media/media/press-releases/national-restaurant-association-launches-kids-livewell-2/
Photo from Pexels by Any Lane.