As a first-time author, I never anticipated just how hard it would be to stop writing a book.
Mind you, cranking out 80,000 words wasn’t a purely joyous experience (see Eight Things I’ve Learned About Writing a Book), but almost as soon as I handed in the manuscript for Kid Food, I started seeing news items almost every week touching on themes I’d been thinking about for over a year. Each time that happens, my fingers practically itch to get back to the keyboard and it feels so odd to no longer have that outlet.
Well, people, my fingers are itching plenty this morning. . . .
Thanks to a tweet yesterday from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, I’ve just learned about new television campaigns promoting Kraft Heinz’s “blue box” mac-n-cheese—perhaps the most iconic “kid food” in America—along with the company’s shredded cheese.* And watching this collection of commercials was like seeing an entire chapter of Kid Food come to life, one in which I unpack the many marketing techniques used by the processed food industry to first stoke, and then prey upon, parents’ worries and frustrations around feeding their kids.
Central among these tactics is convincing parents that kids will never eat healthier foods, so they should just throw in the towel and buy its products instead. And in this textbook example, Kraft Heinz shows a child who mimics vomiting at the prospect of eating salmon, successfully cowing his parents into scrapping their planned healthier dinner in favor of serving tacos using the company’s shredded cheese:
Here’s a second Kraft Heinz commercial along these same lines, in which a boy refuses his nutritionally balanced dinner until his visibly distraught mom caves in and gives him a bowl of mac-n-cheese, even as the rest of the family appears to eat the healthier meal:
The company’s tag line pretty much says it all: “Kids will always finish a cheesy bowl of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. You will always love finishing a meal without hearing ridiculous excuses like green and brown things don’t mix. Kraft, for the win win. #ForTheWinWin”
Another topic I tackle in this chapter of Kid Food is how highly processed food placates—and even silences—children at the table, taking the burden of disciplining kids off the shoulders of weary parents. It’s a benefit the food industry well understands and eagerly exploits, as in this Kraft Heinz ad showing a beleaguered dad serving up the company’s mac-n-cheese just to buy a little peace and quiet:
Tag line: “Kids love the cheesy taste of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. You love how peaceful it is while they eat every bite. Finally, the marching band has stopped for just a few beautiful moments. Kraft, for the win win. #ForTheWinWin”
Another version in this vein has a mom chasing her child through the house with a forkful of vegetables, but only serving an unthreatening bowl of mac-n-cheese gets her to sit down quietly at the table. Tag line: “Kids know Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is the cheesiest. You know they’ll stay put to enjoy it. So now you don’t have to chase them around the house while they throw a tantrum. Kraft, for the win win. #ForTheWinWin”
Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong with giving your kid a bowl of mac-n-cheese now and then, and who among us hasn’t resorted to “kid food” on those busy or difficult nights when we just need to get everyone fed?
But commercials like these are insidious because they perpetuate several misleading and destructive messages: that children can’t or won’t eat healthier “adult” food; that parents shouldn’t think twice about short-order cooking, instead of serving one meal for the entire family; and that it’s totally OK to use highly-palatable processed food to control kids’ behavior, instead of doing the harder work of, you know, actually parenting.
With its #ForTheWinWin hashtag, Kraft Heinz wants us to believe that all of those outcomes are somehow a net positive for families. But the only real winner here is Kraft Heinz, which is apparently willing to do whatever it takes to move more blue boxes off the supermarket shelf—regardless of the consequences for kids.
* An earlier version of this post didn’t distinguish between the company’s use of these messages for both its shredded cheese and boxed mac-n-cheese products.
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