Parents taking greater control over what their children eat

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 17th September 2008

Two thirds of British mums believe that their children should eat what they are given – signalling a major shift in attitude as parents seek control in the healthy eating debate, according to TNS.

Three years after the start of Jamie Oliver’s school dinners campaign, a new report by global market insight group TNS has revealed a steep rise in the number of parents trying to exercise more control over what their children eat, with just 27% of the nation’s parents now happy to buy what their children want, compared with 41% in 2005. The ability of pester power appears to be declining. Almost two thirds of mums believe that their children should eat what they are given – nearly 20% more than in 2003.

Despite increased investment in school meals, parents are also increasingly managing what their children eat at school, with the number of lunchboxes prepared at home rising 8% to 1.2 billion a year. The contents of children’s lunchboxes are also falling prey to health concerns – with one in four parents saying ‘health reasons’ now determine what goes in the packed lunch.

The typical 2008 child’s lunchbox includes 16% more fruit, 32% more yoghurt and 25% more vegetables than this time a year ago.

Eating together as a family is another major shift witnessed through the TNS study. The average British household eats five more meals together every month than they did three years ago – and is also eating at the table more, with an increasing number of households favouring the dining room over eating in front of the TV.

Notably, TNS report that this trend toward more formal dining has led to a decline in how often people are snacking – after two decades of almost uninterrupted growth. Such a finding in the UK is in contrast to a report this week from NPD in the US, which found American consumers were beginning to increase their snacking behaviour after a lull between 1996 and 2002.

“Over the past three years snacking has declined by 11%, despite the importance of healthy choices such as fresh fruit,” said Matt Stockbridge, TNS Consumer Insight Director. “There is a real shift in the types of snacks consumed in schools and in the workplace, with crisps and confectionery in decline while fruit is on the up. Fruit is now the most popular in-school snack, being eaten 192 million times per year.”

The contrasting snacking figures between the UK and the US are intriguing, but there are similarities which are important for retailers and manufacturers to realise. Most notably, is the popularity of fruit, with the UK figures correlating with the finding that fruit was the most popular snack choice in America, and offering further evidence that the ‘health and wellness boom’ is a worldwide trend.

While both studies suggested that traditional snacks, such as confectionery and potato chips, will face heightened pressure in the wake of increased interest in healthy products, the success of products like dark chocolate highlights that this does not necessarily signal a bleak future for such products. Chocolate has been a mainstay in the snacking sector – a decadent indulgence for many consumers – and, as realisations of the health benefits of cocoa have become common knowledge, manufacturers and marketers have begun to discover that dark and premium chocolate can provide consumers with that healthier option.

Essentially, the growth of dark and premium chocolate sales has been symbolic of the shift in consumer preferences – a trend toward ‘better for you’ products. Consumers still desire their “guilty pleasures”, but many more are now looking for a health benefit that can erase a little of the guilt.

The greater control parents are exerting over their children’s diet has reportedly been occurring in Australia as well, with major organic industry members reporting earlier this year that parents (and their children) were a big reason for the growth in popularity of organic goods.

Don Fraser, consultant to organic retail success story Macro Wholefoods Market, said that consumer concern over food origins and ingredients has parents looking for certified organic alternatives. “This willingness to invest in a child’s health is occurring despite the fact parents may not consume organic themselves,” he claimed. “Some mothers are buying two separate rounds of groceries – conventional product for themselves, but organically produced for their children.”

“A substantial amount – up to a third – of our organic category is estimated to be consumed by a person under eight,” reported Rick Carmont, brand category manager with the world’s leading dairy exporter, Fonterra.

And, with advertising regulations likely to get tougher, there is a clear sign that now, more than ever before, marketers and manufacturers need to ensure that snacks targeted toward children also appeal to parents – after all, they are the customer.