Just the mention of "kid food" conjures up images of processed and unhealthy choices.
Chicken nuggets. French fries. Brightly-colored sugary cereal. Pizza. Lemonade. Macaroni and cheese. Tater tots. Sugary chewy fruit snacks. It's enough to make nutritionists — or many parents — groan.
But there are many in the industry who want to leave those old definitions behind and remake food for children. Speaking as part of a panel at the National Press Club on Monday, Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said she would like to see progress toward making "kid food" the best food in terms of both healthy quality and taste.
"Kid food has really become a problem," she said. "It has become the worst food, and we need to change that."
Panelists on Monday talked about how to improve the quality of the average children's meal, looking at restaurants, grocery stores, school cafeterias, marketing campaigns and the home kitchen.
Billions of dollars are spent every year on advertising targeted to children. According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, on average, children see 11 food and beverage advertisements each day. Wootan said that the definition of unhealthy "kid food" has been hard wired into Americans through ad campaigns and marketing for decades.
Christina Economos, a professor at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition and director of ChildObesity180, agreed that the pervasive campaign needs to stop.
"At different points, I think we've all enabled this social construction to occur," she said. "I think we're ready to make the change."
Children's taste preferences often set the agenda for what the rest of the family eats. According to a study from the Food Marketing Institute and Rodale, 95% of parental food and beverage purchase decisions are shaped by what children want. Coming close behind was whether the items are healthy for children.
However, panelists said that the same healthy foods can be at the center of the plate for both adults and children. Sanjay Sehgal, vice president of nutrition, health and wellness for Nestle USA, said that everyone — from manufacturers to restaurants to consumers — needs to find solutions to make healthy food that the whole family is eating also interesting to children.
Nutrition has always been a part of Nestle's DNA, he said, and the company is working to improve its offerings for children. It is not an easy road for a manufacturer to walk, he said, but it is a necessary one.
"For a company to be sustainable and profitable in the long run, you have to do the right thing," he said. "It will have consequences, but that is the only way you can sustain the organization and be profitable in the long run."
Panera founder and CEO Ron Shaich, whose restaurant chain has historically made headlines for its movement toward more healthy choices, said that the hunger for profits has been part of the problem for years. Panera recently retooled the way it presented the kids' menu, making all offerings clean with no artificial additives, increasing the wholesomeness factor, pairing main courses with nutritious sides, not bundling a meal with a sugary drink, and with no gimmicks or toys.
With company shareholders pushing profitability, Shaich said it's been easy for the food business to get stuck in the mode of unhealthy food. From a restaurant standpoint, he said, the highest profit margins are on sugary drinks and french fries. But it's time to get everyone to think differently.
"We want to support everyone in their journey," he said. "We take an optimistic view these organizations want to move forward. They want to do the right thing."
Lawrence Soler, president and CEO of Partnership for a Healthier America, said his organization is committed to expanding access and appeal of healthy food, and making the healthy choice the easy choice to make. He's worked with players throughout the industry, including Wall Street analysts. Soler said they are more than willing to work with the food industry.
"Food analysts want to be part of the solution," he said "When presented with the research and facts to understand the issues the way we do, they really want to be an asset."
Even with cooperation from the C-suite and analysts, however, making changes takes effort. Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said that marketing messages targeted at children need to stop. Children are susceptible to advertising messages, which turn he said turns them into lobbyists for unhealthy choices.
Some groups are trying to use the same advertising tactics that get children to want sugary cereals or candy bars to promote fruits and vegetables. Cartoon characters adorn some packages of fruits and vegetables. Soler said that the Partnership for a Healthier America has helped get a partnership with Sesame Workshop, putting popular Sesame Street characters near fruits and vegetables. They also have put together a celebrity endorsement campaign, using famous faces like Serena Williams to promote veggies.
Soler said this is using the tactics that other marketers have used for good.
"It's hard to stop what's out there," he said.
Golin said he thinks that confuses children and hurts the message. He said it is important to make sure that children choose the right foods for the right reasons: They taste good and are healthy.
"They're not forming a relationship with the food. It's a relationship with the celebrity," he said. "... As long as we're using these same techniques to market junk food, this brings a very confusing message to kids."
The people who should be targeted are parents, who can be swayed to make the right decisions. Lucille Beseler, president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said her group recently partnered with an organization in Tennessee to teach parents about food, instructing them how to prepare more healthy meals at home. The program, she said said led to sustained success, with increases in things like eating breakfast. Programs like these empower parents to make the right choices, which trickle down to their children.
Sehgal said that the need for manufacturers to constantly improve their products is a given, but eating patterns and personal preferences are set in children early — usually by age 3.
Shaich said that his goal is always to add value to the lives of consumers, and thinks that change needs to come from the private sector.
"To really engage in the discussion, you show how do you do it," Shaich said. "The most powerful way to guide change is for someone to take the leap and show that it works."