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Marketing produce to kids is a hot topic right now. From what I can see happening in the marketplace, produce growers are still reaching for straws when it comes to finding tactics that work. Getting kids to eat their veggies has never been easy, and marketing produce to kids still fundamentally comes down to what kids are willing to eat, or refuse to eat.

I had what could be considered epic throwdowns over eating anything that contained an onion. In fact, I threatened to vomit if I was ever served one, and I followed through on that threat. One episode of my refusal to eat cooked carrots resulted in my being forced to remain seated at the dinner table for hours after dinner was over, until I figured out the orange discs would stick to the underside of the table, at least for long enough to be excused. That ruse lasted about an hour, once the carrots hit the floor. I served hard time for that one.

Biological defenses

Ultimately, good marketing boils down to providing a solution to a need and communicating it in a language that resonates with your target. But it’s not that easy when it comes to combining kids and vegetables. There are both biological and psychological reasons why kids are naturally averse to eating their greens, and even fruit. A sophisticated two-pronged defense if you will.

Biologically, kids need a lot of energy. Veggies are not calorically dense. So, it makes sense that kids are going to go for foods with more calories, carbs and fat content to meet their biological needs. Additionally, kids typically don’t like the taste or texture of veggies because many are bitter. In nature, bitter taste, and even bright colors, potentially indicates poison. There’s food preference research, such as that carried out by the University of Arizona, Rutgers University and others, to show that kids may be more averse to bitter tastes as a natural survival instinct.

As we age and gain experience, we learn what is safe to eat and develop a more sophisticated palette, apart from many husbands — you know who you are — who still refuse to eat their veggies as adults.

Drawing the line

Then there’s the emotional, or stubbornness component. Kids (and husbands) are seeking control and testing the waters of authoritative boundaries. That means refusing to eat something simply for the sake of having the control to do so. No amount of parental pleading, forced eating or marketing may change that dynamic, and can in fact make the situation worse.

Go small

Let’s first look at ways that produce growers and marketers are working to circumvent these natural defenses. One major trend I’ve spotted revolves around making produce cute and small snacks — kid-sized produce, if you will.

Simply making fruit and veggies accessible to kids in smaller sizes, that better fit their little hands and mouths, makes logistical sense. If kids can’t handle a big peach on their own, they may be less inclined to choose it for a snack. The Summer Fruit Heroes line from DJ Forry features to-go packs of peaches, plums and nectarines, all in the 3.5 to 5.5-oz. size, which they intend to be more easily handled by kids as healthy snacks. They have fun names like Neutron Nectarine, Power Plum and Punch Peach. Lil’ Snappers, also marketed as “kid-size fruits,” offers up handled bags of small apples, citrus, pears or mixed bags. Their website offers kid-friendly recipes for foods that include their produce, such as “Apple Smile Sandwiches” and “Lil’ Snappers Critters.”

ROCKIT apples, produced by Chelan Fresh in New Zealand, are a small (1.5x the size of a golf ball) bright red apples packed in a grab-and-go container that resembles a tennis ball container. Their target is the snacking market.

Snacks rule

And snacking is apparently the “new thing.” I know, here we all thought that we were all already experts on snacking. But despite growing waistlines around the country, new innovations in snacking are on the rise in a big way. At the same time, everyone is looking for ways to encourage healthier eating at the kids table. Another marketing trend is to take the approach of marketing produce similarly to junk food — but that approach may not sit well with some parents. Produce growers and marketers do have a good opportunity to get in on the snacking trend in a way that’s good for their bottom line and everyone else’s, and parents are looking for good and authentic motives.

Another major trend is that of leveraging the power of popular cartoon and movie characters to promote produce. There is research out of Virginia Tech that indicates kids make strong connections to non-human entities, and that cartoon-type brand mascots can potentially influence a child’s eating habits now and in the future. As such, food producers need to be responsible with which types of foods they market using such influential characters when targeting children. Healthy food producers can potentially use these non-human brand advocates to help kids and parents develop better eating habits over time.

Narrow the focus

However, ultimately a pepper is still a pepper. And if your kids hate peppers, chances are a cartoon character on the label isn’t going to change that dynamic. Moms I spoke with say the topic of conversation of trying to get kids to eat more produce is almost an obsessive one, both in person and online. It’s a topic that causes a lot of fear and anxiety for moms who worry about their kids’ health. Ultimately, the trick to getting their kids to eat at least some produce seems to come down to identifying one or two veggies or fruits that an individual child will tolerate, then feeding them that offering on a regular basis different ways. That involves getting creative with ingredients.

Get sneaky

This has led many parents to try to follow the advice of book authors and bloggers to hide vegetables in less-healthy foods, or replace certain foods, such as pasta, with similar looking veggies. Think spinach baked into the brownies or spiral cut zucchini noodles. I asked several parents if this approach works for them, but, yet again, the overall response was dismal. In fact, some parents have found the only way to encourage their kids to eat their veggies is to not trick them from the get go. Dallas mom Katrina Kennedy worked to put unpackaged fresh veggies on the table early on and attributes her daughter’s affinity for veggies to “never tricking her or sneaking it in her food.”

Many parents agree that the, “You will clean your plate or else,” scenario is not always a win-win. See my previously referenced cooked carrot story. “If I can give one single example where my kid chose to eat a vegetable, it’s when she has planted, watered, tended and grown the vegetable herself,” says Shawna Coronado, mom, wellness advocate and vegetable grower in Chicago. “Outside of that it's a daily war waged in the mom trenches.”

Responses like these, anecdotal as they are, beg the question — should you try so hard to directly target kids with your marketing, or should you instead focus on mom and dad?

Shrink to fit shoppers

It seems to me that we should take the shrink-to-fit approach to a more tangible level if we want to reach kids with our marketing — or rather for them to reach the produce. I love the new trend I’ve seen lately where grocery stores are offering tiny shopping carts labeled for “future customers.” Why don’t we treat kids like they are already customers now, instead of future customers? How about a store-in-store kids produce section where the displays are kid-high and size appropriate, stocked with produce they can pick up? I can’t say I’ve ever seen one. That way, kids can be physically involved in choosing produce that directly appeals to them, and that gives them the power to make good choices. If they’ve chosen the produce on their own, perhaps there’s a greater chance they’ll eat it rather than it going to waste.

POP solutions

Packaging and POP takeaways that include creative and kid-friendly ways to prepare produce would also be helpful, such as recipes on packaging and recipe cards in displays the kids can also see and select. Mom Nikki Rosen from Dallas agrees. “I think I need help not on how to get my kid to try new veggies, but how to prepare the few they like,” she says.

Most likely, good produce marketing to kids relies on appealing to both mom and kid separately yet simultaneously, and in ways that are authentic. The things that may be important and appealing to moms are factors such as increasing the frequency of produce consumption, organic foods, reduced sugar and diet sensitivities such as gluten content. Kids, on the other hand, want power in the decision-making process, while still choosing foods that seems fun.