The Potatoes Smile; The Fries Are Blue

The New York Times
March 13, 2003

The Potatoes Smile; the Fries Are Blue

Clockwise from left, are some of the foods on the market: a Kid Cuisine TV dinner with chicken patties in the shape of Powerpuff Girls; macaroni and cheese from Stouffer’s in various shapes, including sunglasses and scooters; and McCain Smiles, potatoes with smiley faces and “kool blue” fries.
Kathy Kirkpatrick will do almost anything to make her 7-year-old daughter, Tammy, eat a healthy dinner. When Tammy was an infant, Ms. Kirkpatrick would put green food dye in her eggs because Tammy liked the color. More recently, she bought green ketchup so Tammy could slather it on her vegetables. This week, she tried cinnamon-flavored fries. “It’s driving me nuts, because I know I need to get some vegetables into her, and I’m looking for ways to sneak,” said Ms. Kirkpatrick, an accountant who lives in Boston. “But finicky kids, what are you going to do?” Food manufacturers have long flooded supermarkets with sugary, salty or unusually shaped products intended to appeal to children. Until recently, those foods have largely been relegated to breakfast, lunch and snack times. Now, food makers are aiming squarely at the evening meal, and Heinz’s green ketchup, introduced two and a half years ago, was only the start. Entrees, side dishes and condiments are being rushed to market in an effort to accommodate children accustomed to foraging at the food court of the local mall and parents who simply want some peace at the dinner table. The new products are a mix of adult-pleasing convenience and child-pleasing shock value. Ragu, a division of Unilever’s Best Foods, recently released Ragu Express, a line of pasta dishes in single-serve, containers that children can prepare in a microwave. ConAgra has updated Kid Cuisine, its line of TV dinners for children, so that each item in the meal fits a theme. The Sandwich Builder, for example, is a hamburger meal with a patty shaped like a house and cookies that look like bricks. On the shock-inducing front, there is Jelly Bean Jelly from Robert Rothschild Farm, a line of jellies for dinner rolls in flavors like watermelon, sour apple and banana. ConAgra has livened up its offerings with Parkay Fun Squeeze, hot pink and electric blue margarine. Eastern Foods has a line of neon-colored salad dressings with names like Purple Pizzazzz and Outrageous Orange. Ore-Ida, a unit of Heinz, is trying to appeal to children with blue fries, which can be dipped in the purple, orange, pink and teal ketchups that Heinz has added. Heinz plans to introduce another color in the spring, though the specifics remain hush-hush. “There’s still a few left in the rainbow for us to go after,” a company spokesman, Robin W. Teets, said. “It’s solid incremental volume for us. They are a very nice spike.” Colleen Fahey, the executive vice president of Frankel, a company that specializes in marketing to children, said the new food products for children reflected the strains developing around the dinner table. “Families have less time together,” Ms. Fahey said. “They don’t want to risk not having a pleasant experience by hassling over food choices because they’d rather enjoy each other’s company. Allowing more freedom in food choices helps that happen. It’s a whole cultural change, and it’s going on very quietly.” Children and teenagers have long driven what parents put in their grocery carts. Mintel Consumer Intelligence, a market research firm, said children help influence from $43 billion to $50 billion of the $133 billion that is spent each year on food and beverages for them. In the 1950’s, marketers began selling cereal swathed with images of cartoon characters on the outside and the promise of decoder rings inside. Fifteen years ago, Oscar Meyer Lunchables introduced customized meals into the school lunchroom. With this foray into the family dinner, the food companies have roiled some nutritionists who are concerned that parents will simply placate their children with foods that are high in sugars and fat. “Dinner may be the last remaining meal where kids eat some healthy foods during the day,” said Bonnie Liebman, the director for nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group in Washington. “If that becomes junk food territory, we’re in trouble. Dinner is one of the few places where some kids are still eating vegetables.” Food marketers disagree. “Clearly there’s an educational opportunity here as well,” said Sid Good, the president of Good Marketing, a consulting firm that specializes in marketing to children and has advised companies like Frito-Lay and Nabisco. “We’re also not assuming that just because these kinds of products are marketed to kids that kids would be having a steady diet of these products every single meal. Presumably they’re a part of a very diverse diet.” Executives at Eastern Foods, which makes the Naturally Fresh brand of colorful salad dressings, sauces and dips, addressed some of those concerns by adding vitamins to its products. “We felt that the color would appeal to the children; the vitamins would appeal to the parents and the idea that children were coming into the salad dressing category and using the products would help drive celery sticks and carrot stick sales in the produce section,” said Alan Mesches, the marketing director at Eastern Foods, which is based in Atlanta. “It’s a way of growing our business in away that we hadn’t before.” Marion Nestle, the chairwoman of the department of food studies at New York University and the author of “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health” (University of California Press, 2002), said that preparing separate foods for children would accelerate the shift from the traditional family meal to the practice of grazing, or serial snacking. “There are still some die-hards that are doing it the old-fashioned way where everybody sits around the dinner table and talks to each other, but increasingly, I think it’s just easier for people to have a kind of laissez-faire attitude about it,” Dr. Nestle said. “It’s a different approach to food, and it’s an approach that is much less portion-controlled and much less calorie-controlled plus you lose a tremendous amount of socialization that comes with it — family interaction, bonding, conversation. “Maybe this stuff is all imaginary and Norman Rockwell,” she said, “but it’s hard to think that it’s good that it’s being given up.” Some analysts said the new products were destined to fail because parents would not take the time to prepare separate meals for children. While over 70 percent of all meals are still being made inside of the home, the numbers of items served at dinner, particularly side dishes, has dropped 14.3 percent since 1985, according to the NPD Group, a market research company. “Cooking is a chore for most people, and we look at how to get out of our chores,” said Harry Balzer, a vice president of the NPD Group. “Anything that requires mom to be making something beyond the main dish, I don’t think mom likes.” Ms. Kirkpatrick said that her daughter, Tammy, was initially pleased with Heinz’s green ketchup, eating fries and soon, her mother had hoped, vegetables that were covered with the product. But Tammy’s appetite was fleeting. “It worked for like two whole days,” Ms. Kirkpatrick said. “Then it was `Nah, it tastes the same.’ “

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