A Little Fun — and a Discount — Can Steer Kids to Healthier Foods

A first-of-its-kind study finds that children respond to pricing incentives when buying their own snacks.

March 20, 2024

| by Hope Reese
colorful illustration of a young person holding and looking at a stack of health food in their left hand and holding a stack of junk food in their right hand, while thinking about money.

Whether children understand the value of money “is an open debate,” says Szu-chi Huang. | iStock/stolenpencil/Anastasiia Boriagina

Parents all over the world know that getting kids to eat healthy foods is an uphill battle. Getting them to avoid junk food when they’ve got some spending money is even tougher. However, new research by Szu-chi Huang, an associate professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business, shows that children will gravitate toward healthier food if you offer them a deal.

Huang has been studying what motivates healthy behaviors in adults for years. In 2015, a representative from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) who was visiting Stanford asked if her work applies to children. Huang did not know –– “I had more questions than answers,” she recalls –– but she was intrigued by the question.

It’s no secret that adults don’t always make rational decisions regarding their health. Still, Huang explains, “adults have the ability to think about their goals,” which means there’s a chance they will regulate their diets. But kids “can’t think about these things in abstract terms” and can’t plan their diets in the same way.

When she began digging into these issues, Huang realized there was little research on how popular marketing vehicles, such as coupons, drive children’s food choices in natural field settings. This discovery led to a collaboration with UNICEF and the government of Panama, which had been struggling to reduce childhood obesity. In developing countries, obesity can be just as much of a problem as malnutrition. To make up for a calorie deficiency, Huang explains, kids often “reach for high-sugar, high-fat foods,” which can result in unhealthy weight gain.

Working with Michal Maimaran, PhD ’08, of Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and Daniella Kupor, PhD ’16, of Questrom School of Business at Boston University, Huang set about investigating elementary school children ages 6 to 11 in Panama who brought money from home to buy meals, snacks, and beverages at school kiosks. The goal was to give them a financial incentive to buy healthier drinks –– in this case, saving money through coupons. The team believes this is the first field study to look at the promotion of healthy products to young children solely through price discounts without incorporating other marketing strategies.

It seems obvious that lowering the cost of food –– or any product, for that matter –– should lead to more people choosing it. Not necessarily, Huang says. Whether children understand the value of money “is an open debate,” she explains. Plus, dropping the price won’t always work because kids have many competing goals. There are hunger goals, like satisfying an immediate craving or wanting to fill up on calories. And there are social goals, such as eating what their friends eat. “These can override the power of incentives and value-based goals,” Huang says.

Choosy Kids Choose…

In their study, Huang and her colleagues divided more than 2,400 children into two age-based groups. The kids were offered three-day coupons they could use at school to buy healthy beverages such as a cereal shake or a natural fruit beverage. The children did react to the price promotions, buying more of the healthy products. Huang believes that the coupons worked partly because of their novelty. “If we can make it fun, like a puzzle or a game, we draw children’s attention to price and value,” she says, “which may not have been important to them before.”

For the older kids, the most effective discount messages required them to calculate or derive the final price –– for instance, offering a percentage off rather than simply stating the reduced price. Though it required some mental math, this more complex message appears to have been more engaging and fun for kids.

If we can make it fun, like a puzzle or a game, we draw children’s attention to price and value, which may not have been important to them before.
Szu-chi Huang

Another key finding is what happened after the experiment was over and the discounts ended. At one school, both younger and older children continued to choose healthy options more frequently than before the study. This surprised the researchers since it contradicted what they’d seen in the literature. The reason for the effect, Huang believes, is that this study promoted a healthy option that was not very expensive to begin with. The experiment encouraged children to pay attention to price, so this relatively inexpensive healthy product retained its appeal even after the discount lapsed.

However, this also suggests that short-term discounts on healthy food could have the unintended longer-term effect of drawing cost-conscious kids toward cheaper, less healthy products. Ongoing incentives could steer kids toward healthy products that are seen as relatively affordable, bridging the “price gap” between inexpensive, unhealthy food and more expensive healthy foods. What’s essential, Huang says, is to help instill healthy consumption habits and preferences in children that last beyond the length of the promotion.

Huang says this research has lessons for marketers, who often struggle to make healthy products attractive to kids. It also could help schools provide healthier options since they act as “gatekeepers” for what students eat during the school day and how products are promoted on campus. And governments could subsidize interventions like the one tested in Panama to help make healthy options more appealing and exciting to children.

This paper builds on& an earlier one in which Huang looked at how Panamanian kids responded to messages to drink water at school. She believes the latest results open the door for testing other creative ways to promote healthy options to kids through gamification, rebranding, and peer influence.

“We need to think about the goals that healthy options can be linked to and how to make these goals more salient to children to drive their action,” she says. Gamifying healthy choices through a limited-time coupon is a great start as it is novel, engaging, and “gives children autonomy, which can empower them to try more healthy options down the road.”

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More