How to Avoid Embarrassing Cereal-Aisle Battles With Kids

A new study looks at the “nag factor”—or kids asking repeatedly for advertised food—and how parents can avoid it

Moms of young kids know the cereal aisle can be a battle. Here’s how to keep your kids healthy.

Food tastes better when cartoons are involved­ at least according to kids, Yale University researchers found in a 2010 study. A new study, however, finds that Tony the Tiger and Lucky the Leprechaun are doing more than just influencing children’s taste buds—they’re a key part of why moms are losing cereal aisle battles.

The study, published in the August issue of the Journal of Children and Media, investigates what many moms are probably already familiar with: kids’ tendency to persistently ask for advertised food items, or what researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health are calling the “nag factor.” Between October 2006 and July 2007, researchers interviewed 64 mothers of three to five year olds about household environment, their child’s demographics, media use, eating and shopping patterns, and requests for advertised items, among other factors.

What they found might not come as a surprise. While overall media use didn’t seem to have an effect on nagging, familiarity with cartoon characters was significantly associated with nagging. And the situation won’t get better as children get older—the study also found that nagging increases with age. Experts say the best way to avoid nagging is simple; cut down on commercial and TV time starting early.

“The study is consistent with what we’ve seen,” said Dr. Nazrat Mirza, the director of the IDEAL (Improving Diet, Energy and Activity for Life) Clinic, the obesity clinic at the Children’s National Medical Center. “For children, the line between fiction and reality is really blurred. Sometimes the cartoon characters become more of a reality to them.”

Mirza says that limiting commercial exposure—at 36 percent, the most common strategy mothers cited for dealing with the “Nag Factor”—is a good start for keeping nagging at bay. She recommends that parents limit their child’s television viewing time to two hours or fewer each day, while children less than two years of age shouldn’t watch at all.

The second most common anti-nagging strategy, at 35 percent, was explaining to children the reasons for making or not making certain purchases. But Mirza says children as young as three to five may be too young to respond well to reasoning. Instead, she says, just leave young kids at home when grocery shopping.

“In public, children might feel they have more power. It’s manipulative,” Mirza says, noting that some children nag or throw temper tantrums to test boundaries. If you have to take your kid along, she says, make an agreement beforehand on a healthy cereal option.

“Maybe you decide you’re going to buy Cheerios today, and the child agrees,” Mirza says. “If your child sticks with the plan and doesn’t throw a tantrum, then you can say ‘okay, I can take my child shopping.’ ”

Buying a cereal bowl or cup with your child’s favorite cartoon character can also help, Mirza says. A less effective strategy? Giving in, according to study participants, who consistently cited it as one of the least effective tactics.

“If you do give in, you have to give a consequence,” Mirza says. “It can be immediate, like a three-minute timeout when you get out of the store. But then it’s over. Don’t carry a grudge.”

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Other strategies that mothers cited including avoiding the commercial environment, setting rules, staying calm and consistent, yelling, distracting, and ignoring. Mirza says ignoring your child’s requests often only escalates the problem, so make sure to explain to your children the reason they’re being ignored. For older children, starting from about seven years of age, offering alternative choices is key.

But if your child doesn’t seem to be getting over their love of cereal cartoon characters, which Mirza says often mask products that are less healthy, have heart. Studies have shown that after repeated exposure, about 15 to 20 times, kids will eat a food they wouldn’t eat before. When picking out a cereal, look for choices with more than three grams of fiber and less than 12 grams of sugar—eight grams if your child is diabetic.

Limiting commercial exposure may help cut down nagging ­and battle childhood obesity­, study researchers said. To that, Mirza adds giving your kids healthy options to choose from, which will help them become smart decision makers about their diet and keep sugary cereals and beverages from finding their way into the kitchen pantry.

“Give parameters to help the child feel they have some autonomy in choice,” Mirza says. “The parent provides, the child decides.”

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