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The Lunch Tray Makeover

Tips from the pros on how to market nutritious food to kids in school — and at home
The Lunch Tray Makeover

How can school nutritionists — and parents, for that matter — get children excited about eating healthier foods? One way to do it: Take a page from the ad campaigns of the companies peddling the unhealthy stuff.

That idea was one of many useful takeaways from a panel discussion about marketing new flavors to kids, part of a daylong event at Harvard University called Healthy Food Fuels Hungry Minds: Serving Change in Public School Food. The conference — the first in an annual series — featured leading voices in food policy, school nutrition, pubic health, and education.

“Advertising and marketing techniques as designed by the commercial world are very effective at reaching kids,” said Joe Blatt, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who opened the discussion. Blatt has spent a career thinking about how children learn through television and other media.

Here’s what advertisers know about how to nudge kids, he said:

For young children, tell a story that’s focused on the product you’re selling. Make the brand or the product a character. Show children what to do with the product, and show children using it. Then repeat.

For older elementary-age children, define and exploit the concept of cool; peer approval is essential at this age. Capitalize on kids’ desire to act older than they are. Use music and humor – especially humor that makes fun of adults.

For tweens and teens, think viral sharing and think exclusive. Memberships help to create a feeling of exclusivity. Create advergames — online games that function as product ads. Use celebrities to endorse your product. Make your product social; encourage and reward user-generated content.

“In general, you want to associate your product with happiness,” Blatt said, "instead of focusing on specific attributes.”

That may explain why “because it’s nutritious” was nowhere found among the successful marketing messages used by Blatt’s fellow panelists: Jeanne Sheridan, school nutrition director for the Blackville Millville (Massachusetts) Regional School District; Adriene Worthington, senior nutrition manager for the Greater Boston Food Bank; and Alex Freedman, a Massachusetts FoodCorps fellow.

An overview of the strategies they’ve used for getting kids to embrace nutritious foods:

Put kids in the driver’s seat.

  • Use an iPad for instant surveys in the cafeteria.
  • Set up voting stations so kids can vote for their favorite new food.
  • Let kids create a recipe or name a new dish.
  • Have students pass out samples to their peers.
  • Empower older kids to sit on nutritional councils, form cooking clubs, or contribute to decisions about food policy.

Taste tests work.

  • Sample new foods alongside familiar foods (especially in food-insecure schools) so kids won’t go hungry if they don’t like the new food.

The monthly menu is still an important channel.

  • Make sure the wording is friendly and fun, and find room for recipes or suggestions. Make sure it’s well distributed. Encourage parents to print and post it somewhere prominent and look at it regularly with their kids.

Know your audience.

  • Try to incorporate culturally relevant flavors and foods.

Create connections with community partners.

  • Sheridan said she relies on partnerships with local grocery stores, nearby foundations, and the John Stalker Institute at Framingham State College, which provides training for her staff.

Have fun with promotion. Some ideas:

  • Sheridan and her staff sponsored Apple Cruncher Day — a local farm donated apples, and every student crunched into one at the same time.
  • Launch a Harvest of the Month campaign, preparing foods made with that seasonal item.
  • Institute “Tasting Thursdays” and “Taste a Rainbow” events (where kids try to eat a vegetable or fruit of every color in the rainbow).
  • Create a flavor station with exotic spices/herbs/sauces.
  • Create school gardens.

Use the power of “cool.”

  • Train teens to teach younger kids about nutrition.

Be mindful that cafeteria staff are on the front lines.

  • A smile on the face of a staff member can be persuasive to kids. (It works the opposite way, too.)
  • Train staff members on how to prepare and serve the new foods.
  • Use humor; create a warm working environment.
  • Communicate goals.

Believe that kids will eat and like vegetables.

  • Use the power of marketing to draw connections between healthy choices and positive/happy/fun experiences.

“Healthy Food Fuels Hungry Minds” was held at Harvard University on June 10, 2015, and organized by Let's Talk About FoodMassachusetts State Office of Nutrition, Health, and Safety, Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, and the Harvard University Dining Services Food Literacy Project.

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