I was riding in the car with a friend and her three-year-old this weekend. As we passed a McDonalds, her daughter began to hum a familiar jingle. She ended it with, "I'm lovin' it." Needless to say, I should not have been surprised. If you are the parent of a toddler, you know that kids are not immune to marketing. They soak it in like a sponge. Think of how many times you have caught yourself humming the slogan from a fast food restaurant -- one you may not even like but the tune is awfully catchy.
According to a study in Psychology and Marketing, kids as young as age three have already learned brand recognition and logos. Around age three, they start feeling pressure to have the right "stuff." Preschoolers begin forming definite opinions about the kind of food and toys they like best. For example, they know whether they like McDonalds versus Taco Bell or Disney versus My Pretty Pony. It's no wonder marketers are targeting kids earlier and earlier.
One layer of changing children's relationship to food is taking a close look at the marketing of it. A recent study by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) looked at meals that are heavily marketed towards kids. They analyzed menu items from five major fast food chains.
They deemed the Mighty Kids Meals as the worst (nutrient content). Notice that marketing is not just tiny tots anymore. Tweens (or preteens) have been an untapped market. The Mighty Kids Meal is a meal from McDonald's designed for preteens. These tweens are older than those who might eat a Happy Meal. The Mighty Kids Meals provides more food than what you would find in a Happy Meal.
Here are the five worst fast food kids meals (according to PCRM's study):
McDonald's Mighty Kids Meal: Double Cheeseburger, French fries, and chocolate milk.
840 calories, 37 grams of fat
Wendy's Kids Meal: Chicken Sandwich, French fries and chocolate Frosty. 770 calories, 34 grams of fat.
KFC Kids Meal: Popcorn chicken, potato wedges, string cheese and soda. 800 calories, 1,800 milligrams of sodium.
A&W Kids Meal: Cheeseburger, French fries and soda. 780 calories, 9 grams of saturated fat.
Burger King's BK Kids: Breakfast muffin sandwich meal. 95 milligrams of cholesterol (exceeds the Institute of Medicine's limit on sodium intake.)
Consider the potential impact of this meal and other unhealthy foods on a developing brain. Not to mention that food impacts mood. If your teen is going through a phase as it is, could the foods they eat make their emotional highs and lows just a little worse? It's definitely a challenge to feed your kids in a healthy and quick manner. Knowing the facts and what to avoid is important.
Use your child's tendency to learn and regurgitate slogans to your advantage. Teach mindful eating from day one. I saw a mom handing her preschool daughter a banana and singing the Chiquita banana song. Her daughter laughed, joined right in the song and happily ate the banana. Try your own social marketing campaign with your kids. Much better than leaving it up to the T.V. and marketers who have an agenda.
Susan Albers, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in eating issues, weight loss, body image concerns, and mindfulness. She is author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, Eating Mindfully, Eat, Drink, and Be Mindful, and Mindful Eating 101. Visit Albers online at www.eatingmindfully.