Given a choice of an apple or a cookie, what would your child choose for a snack? Most parents would guess that their child would choose a cookie rather than an apple, and they’d be right. If you’re concerned about your child’s eating habits what can you do to encourage your child to choose fruit rather than a cookie? Lectures and sermons probably won’t work. A recent study suggests that parents can take a lesson from companies that market cereals and fast foods to children.

If you’re a parent you are fighting an uphill battle against the fast food and snack food industries that advertise their sugar, fat, and calorie-laden products to your child. One of their favorite strategies is to use cartoon characters in their advertising and promotional materials.

According to one survey Ronald McDonald is recognized by 96 percent of American school kids. In addition there’s also Tony the Tiger, the Trix Rabbit and other brand-specific cartoon characters designed to get kids to whine until mom or dad buys the advertised product. More recently food marketers have tied their products to movie and TV characters. For example, Shrek the Third was licensed by McDonald’s, M&M’s, and Kellogg’s.

Dr. Brian Wansink, a Cornell University professor, and author of Mindless Eating, studied over 200 8 – 11 year old kids in seven New York schools. On a day when the kids could choose either an apple or a cookie for their lunch meal only 20 percent choose the apple. On another day the children could choose between a cookie and an apple with an Elmo (Sesame Street character) sticker, and on a third day the choice was either a cookie or an apple with a sticker portraying an unknown character. The Elmo sticker doubled apple choices when compared to apples without stickers. In contrast, the unknown character sticker didn’t increase apple choices so it was the familiar cartoon character, rather than the sticker itself, that resulted in more apples being chosen.

If the results of Wansink’s study can be replicated with larger samples, school districts could mandate that their cafeterias attach labels with familiar cartoon characters to healthier food choices. But parents don’t need to wait for definitive studies and school districts. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find attractive stickers and labels to put on fruits, veggies, and other healthy snacks. How about Teenage Mutant Ninja Mutant Turtles on prewashed carrots or Hello Kitty on apples to make them more appealing to young children?

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