What Makes Masterchef Junior a Masterpiece?

Posted by Amy Henry on Wed, Nov 20, 2013 @ 02:36 PM

Masterchef Jr.Now that it’s over, it seems the right time to reflect upon the first season of Masterchef Junior Fox’s reality competition show might seem like an unexpected winner to some, but we could have predicted its power. In our second issue of the YouthBeat TrendSpotter, we listed “Kid Cuisine” as a sign of the times. We know that this cohort of youth have grown up with a greater interest in food than any before them. They are exposed to more cuisines, groomed with more refined palettes, and are increasingly indoctrinated that quality matters much more than quantity.

Still, when we saw Masterchef Junior heavily promoted on our On Demand menus, we were skeptical. Right before Masterchef Junior first aired, Rachel Ray and Guy Fieri hosted young chefs for a special episode of their own reality show, Rachael vs. Guy: Kids Cook-Off. The results were hardly appetizing. We love kids of all kinds, but these young chefs preened for the camera. They seemed skilled, for sure, but they didn’t seem comparable to adults (and before Masterchef Junior, would we have expected them to be?). These young reality chefs seemed too contrived for kids to care about, and yet not interesting enough to engage adults. We were left feeling like we’d been hooked by a gimmick, with kids dangled as the bait.

But, perhaps due to professional integrity more than authentic interest, we tuned in for Masterchef Junior. We were on the lookout for the typical kid-in-adult-context pitfalls. Would they be overly precocious? Think National Spelling Bee, which we love once a year, but in weekly doses! Being out-spelled by a 12 year old is one thing, but how many adults would tune in to be “food-shamed”? And on the flipside, we feared the cloyingly sweet children that sometimes appear in shows made for adults but about kids. But the third possibility was truly the most terrifying: Gordon Ramsey of a show called Hell’s Kitchen would be a judge.

The result: a pleasant surprise. So what made this morsel a meal that “tastes like more”?

  1. Humble Pie. Time Magazine writer, James Poniewozik, contributed his list of five reasons why Masterchef Junior worked to the pile of rave reviews from critics. We’d like to borrow one of his sentiments here. In a culture in which adults often steal and stay in the spotlight based on bad behavior (MasterChef, Real Housewives of Anywhere, NFL bullies), we have come to expect shows studded with bullies. But in Masterchef Junior, even Gordon Ramsey minds his manners. More than that – he’s nice. All three judges are. And, there’s nothing more entertaining than watching someone who is sour turn sweet. All three judges treat the contestants with more than professional respect – they treat them like their children.
  2. Taking the Cake. It’s not an easy task to create a show in which the coaches are kind, but the competition is still sharp. And that’s what happens here. These kids come to cook, and the stakes are high – $100,000 for the winner. Not to mention a trophy, and we know how kids love trophies! But in Masterchef Junior, the challenges are real and the strategizing significant. One player has a “target” on his back throughout the competition, yet his cast mates continue to support and comfort him when his cake comes out less ideal than planned. This kind of drama makes for great co-viewing, as parents and youth get caught up in the competition.
  3. Kids’ Cup of Tea. One of the reasons why watching a program that subjects kids and tweens to such intense competition is something we can bear is that it’s crystal clear that these kids love it. They are engaged in what psychologist Mihaly Czikscentmihalyi refers to as “flow”: (to paraphrase) the experience of being so thoroughly immersed in an activity or pursuit that you lose all track of time. The youth participating in Masterchef Junior are clearly not just there because mom and dad signed them up. They are invested and intrinsically motivated in a way that allows them (and us) to tolerate critiques – because they are committed to mastery and perfection. Because this passion is theirs, we want to see where they take it. Their enthusiasm for their work is contagious, and it’s one of the keys to Masterchef Junior’s success.
  4. Surviving Spilled Milk. Even these culinary wizards make mistakes. Alexander, the series star right from the onset, mistakes sugar for flour. Parents and other adults suddenly feel less inadequate. As in adult competition shows, even the best and the brightest miscalculate, overreach, overcomplicate or underestimate sometimes. But what makes it different watching these kids is that we know how hard it is, and how important it is to foster resilience in youth. It’s the difference between successful, healthy children and those who are not, according to most psychologists. Call it bounce-back, GRIT, or even “Fishful Thinking” (as the Goldfish brand has), but however you label it, you know it when you see it. These kids not only recover, but they do so with determination, tenacity, and grace. We love these “characters” not only because they can cook – but because they keep going when it gets hot in the kitchen.
  5. Eating their Hearts Out. Finally, in a culture in which the relationship between kids and food has often been demonized, this show suggests that there’s a new way to frame it. Sure, kids are often known to gain joy from “junk” food, to indulge in insufficient fuel, but Masterchef Junior considers another possibility – can kids learn to love and respect food? Certainly, not every kid will become a foodie (no more than every adult has). Many critics of the show noted an over-representation of kids from California and New York City among the cast. But this show also makes it possible that kids might care about food. Perhaps giving them a bit more credit and some skills in the kitchen could help them get more curious about foods of all types (even the healthy stuff).

When it comes to this kids’ competition show, we suggest indulging, but also incorporating the lessons learned into the brands, products and content that you serve up to youth.

Tags: food, menu, reality tv, TV, culture

Picky Eating and Parenting Wars

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, Jul 12, 2012 @ 03:37 PM

Kids ResearchIn Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater's Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate, Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic brings together hard data on the way we taste to challenge one of many measuring sticks that she claims parents use to compare how well they’ve done at raising respectable, reasonable rugrats. A self-proclaimed picky eater, Lucianovic resists the notion that kids don’t eat whatever is on their plate because of their parents prep (or lack thereof). Instead, she suggests that proclaiming one’s own child to be a good eater is just one more front in the mommy and daddy wars. In a New York Times blog, she points to this politicization of parenting’s predecessors: breastfeeding battles, sleep-habit superiority, and the stay-at-home mom hostility, just to name a few. And she asks, what if being a picky eater has nothing to do with bad parenting, as your friend, whose child eats everything might imply?

Lucianovic seems to pick a side in the parenting wars versus truly catalyzing a truce (which she claims to be her goal). But wherever you stand on the nurture/nature continuum, it’s hard not to see that Lucianovic has identified an insight about parents and parenting today. Whether the subject is sending a kid with a fall birthday to kindergarten at 4 or at 5 (see the 60 Minutes piece from this past weekend entitled “Redshirting:  Holding Kids Back from Kindergarten”), or the ideal age for cell phone acquisition, today’s parents’ decisions might be based on what’s right for their child, but whether they’re concerned about it or not, are likely to face the scrutiny of others. Thus, whether their child’s choice of afternoon snack seems like a big deal to them or not, the amplification of advice from all aspects of the expert universe might make them place more importance on the specific ways they scaffold their children than they might naturally do.

So how can brands and organizations navigate the new obstacles that their parent purchasers or influencers face?

  • First, don’t assume that all parents are on the same side of issues – regardless of the demographic markers they might share. Although issues like holding back kids from kindergarten may be one that is on the radar of middle and upper income families more than lower income families, don’t assume they all fall out on the same side.
  • Look for ways to solve the problems that many moms and dads face, but don’t pile on the judgment that they’re likely to be feeling already.
  • Finally, don’t assume that parenting decisions are “set” early and remain the same. Today’s parents are constantly confronted with new information and changing contexts in which to evaluate them. What worked today (or what worked for one child) might not work for another.

Tags: youth research, food, menu, family, culture

Fickle or Foodie: What is – and Should Be – the Future of Kid Food?

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, Jun 15, 2010 @ 04:49 PM
In a recent NY Times article by Susan Domus, Looking Past the Children's Menu, New York restaurateur Nicola Marzovilla asserts his belief that kids have the same right to couture cuisine as their parents - and that children's menus, with their cheaper, less interesting fare should be banished.

Marzovilla's rant is less about curmudgeonry and more about culture. If we acknowledge that food is more than just fuel, but rather symbolic - sustenance for the soul - than we have to agree with him. Steering kids towards chicken fingers, hamburgers and grilled cheese (regardless of the genre of food featured at the restaurant), the logic would go, not only deprives them of exploring taste, but also takes away their chance to experience different cultures. And for kids, tweens and teens today, it seems that knowing how to handle a menu is a necessary skill. (54% of elementary school aged kids buy lunch at school.)

Furthermore, this article made us ask: should we be catering (no pun intended) to our kids' in-progress taste buds, or should we be pushing them towards more sophisticated fare?

Many parents we talk to extol the virtues of having kids try new things, but our YouthBeat survey results show that kids continue to eat the basics over more complicated foods. While we've heard more than one city kid request a Dragon Roll or choose a spot that features Chicken Tikka Masala over chicken nuggets, only 1% of kids, 2% of tweens and 2% of teens in our survey reported eating sushi in the previous day. Compare this to 51% of kids (1st through 5th graders) eating cereal, 27% eating white bread and 21% eating apple sauce and it's clear that kids across the country aren't quite keeping up with their city counterparts. 

But as many parents know, and most marketers have found, sometimes it's just easier to give kids what they want. In fact, some of the biggest brands in the food category have built their business oKids Menun the notion that kids, tweens and teens can and should have food that they want - food that's developed with their needs in mind. Nutritionists might argue that this recipe could lead to disaster, but we can also point to categories in which healthy foods became kid staples with a little help from licensed characters and from simplifying adult styles (think classic example, yogurt to GoGurt). And more and more restaurants are making moms and dads happy by taking into account the needs of the whole family. Credit McDonald's with kick-starting this trend by offering mom a bonus salad for taking the troupe to PlayPlace.

And more restaurants (even in foodie feeding grounds like Brooklyn!) are taking a turn towards getting the littlest diners to lick their lips. And we think this is smart business - more and more parents report that they go out to eat because it's "fun for the whole family" (41% of parents of elementary school kids, and the number one reason, according to YouthBeat data), not to teach a lesson. Today's parents are likely to tote their toddlers along to adult restaurants rather than leaving them at home with take-out and a sitter. Shouldn't we make the experience easier for them, and more in line with how today's togetherness-focused families really dine?

We think the truth and the future probably lie somewhere in the middle. Getting kids to test exotic foods can be an uphill climb - and a battle that parents will probably resist. At the same time, challenging kids (and marketers!) to take a chance on new tastes might make meals a bit more interesting for kids, tweens and teens, and might make the job of food innovators and menu maestros a bit more fun! And perhaps families will find ways to bond over shared food as much as shared interests. Or in the least, food won't stand in the way of families dining the way they want to: less fine dining and more just feeling fine.

Tags: food, kids, parents, mom, menu, restaurant, tweens, money