Kids’ food choices vary widely – not only according to their tastes and moods, but also by time of day, snacking occasion, and a range of other interrelated factors.

The things a child needs from a snack – small portions, moderate temperatures, and others – may not have much to do with the things they want, such as interesting shapes or flavor combinations. And while a sweet snack in a small portion may be exactly what a certain child wants, that snack is unlikely to end up in the family’s kitchen if it doesn’t measure up to parental expectations.

We at Symrise recently found this out for ourselves, when we conducted an initiative around kids’ snacking habits. Our research included ethnographic data, and is designed to help our customers design new snacking concepts for kids between the ages of 6 to 12.

Here's how the complex interplay of needs, expectations and desires, of both kids and parents, impacts kids’ snack choices, from preschool to the teenage years.

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Needs Develop Over Time

For a preschooler, snack-related needs are fairly simple. Kids under five do best with food served in small portions or bites, at moderate temperatures. Ideally, they should be able to eat the snack without utensils – and it’s a bonus if it can be packed easily, and doesn’t create a mess. For all these reasons, moms tend to do a little extra processing of their own – cutting veggies into smaller bites, packaging them in baggies, and so on.

But by the time a kid has reached elementary-school age, those needs have begun to shift. They now need reasonably sized portions in order to feel satisfied – and although moms still value packable foods with limited mess, kids in the seven-to-ten range are starting to take a more active role in food preparation and choice. In fact, by the time they’re in their tween years, they often prefer to prepare snacks themselves, in larger portions and at a wide range of temperatures.

These needs set the limits’ of kids’ snacking choices. But those choices are also influenced heavily by kids’ wants.

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Wants Also Evolve With Age

Preschoolers have a reputation for being picky about food – but while it’s true that they gravitate toward familiar foods with mild flavors, they’re also intrigued by interesting shapes, bright colors, and any kind of out-of-mouth novelty in terms of presentation. It’s also no secret that preschoolers are attracted by food branded with licensed characters; but even this isn’t a must-have, if the snack grabs their attention in some other unique way.

In the elementary-school years, kids’ wants have become more precise. They’re still looking for familiar foods, but their interest in bonuses like fun utensils, cool shapes and colors, and in-mouth and out-of-mouth fun are at an all-time high. This priority on novelty snacking declines a bit as kids enter their tween years. By age 13 or so, they’re looking for bold, unique flavors, and have become much more willing to explore unfamiliar cuisine.

And yet, while kids’ needs and wants both determine their snack preferences, it’s the parents who make the purchases – and who decide what will and won’t be available to eat.

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Parental Expectations Have Final Say

If final snacking decisions were left exclusively up to kids, they’d choose a variety of sweet and salty foods, depending on the occasion. Parents, on the other hand, want a good balance of nutrition and value. That value may not be strictly financial – for example, a snack that’s easy to prepare can save parents time, providing value in terms of practicality.

On the whole, though, parents are looking for a combination of healthiness, convenience, and honesty about ingredients. Snacks that deliver on these values – or claim to – are far more likely to end up in the cart than those that don’t.

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