Upscale cooking trends are making waves in the kiddie marketplace. Forget the Easy-Bake Oven: Children as young as two are exploring food and cooking with the help of marketers producing everything from sophisticated pretend kitchen sets and pint-sized play stainless steel pots and pans to kid-centered cuisine magazines and TV shows. Children now invite friends to cooking birthday parties and spend summer weeks at kid-only cooking camps.
"It's a good time for foodie kids," said Jill Colella, editor in chief and founder of two food magazines for tykes -- Ingredient, geared to kids ages 6-to-12, and Butternut, a picture-heavy first reader for wee ones ages 3-to-6. "It's what Mandarin Chinese lessons were 10 years ago. ... Food literacy is a competitive advantage in our world."
According to the Cassandra Report, Generation Zers, defined as ages 7-to-17 in the survey, "consider cooking part of their identity." Nearly 4 in 10 kids, including 51% of teens, say they have recently cooked a meal from scratch. Food also rates as one of Gen Z's top obsessions, ranking higher that either music or sports, according to the researcher's winter/spring 2015 Gen Z report.
The trend is driven by other, more-adult trends: healthier eating; the desire for more family time; building kids' self-sufficiency; the globalization of food and the emergence of cooking and eating as an American pastime.
"Now, it's socially acceptable for a kid to be a food phenom comparable to a sports or arts phenom. This fact resonates when we speak with consumers as well as with advertisers, because they relate it to their own experience at home," said Karen Grinthal, senior VP-national ad sales for Food Network and Cooking Channel.
Food Network, which will debut its fourth brand/series with kid chefs, called "Chopped Junior" in October, has drawn viewer and advertiser interest with a succession of hits that began with "Rachel vs. Guy: Kids Cook-Off" two years ago, followed by "Chopped Teens" and "Kids Baking Championship" last year. Rachel Ray is now going it alone in "Rachel Ray's Kids Cook-Off" that began airing Aug. 24.
"Kids love watching Food Network and it's a family event," said Ms. Grinthal. "It's not surprising that 60% of kids age 2-to-17 watch key Food Network shows with their parents," she said, citing Nielsen data.
Typical advertisers on the kid-contestant shows cut across a broad range of categories including autos, consumer packaged goods, casual dining, credit cards and insurance, she said. General Mills' Toaster Strudel, for example, ran custom content on "Rachel vs. Guy" and then continued it across digital and in Food Network magazine. Sponsors on "Kids Baking Championship" include Walt Disney Co., Nissan and Stoneyfield Farms, Ms. Grinthal said. Fox will be also be involved in the upcoming "Chopped Junior" to promote "The Peanuts Movie."
Fox also has its own hit kids cooking show, Fox's "MasterChef Junior." Its third season finale in February – up against a State of the Union address, which is not rated -- ranked as the top-watched show in its 8 p.m. time slot, drawing 5.4 million viewers aged 18-to-49. The show begins its fourth season in November and has a line of branded merchandise including cutting boards, pepper mills, recipe boxes and measuring cups priced up to $50.
For those who want to pretend cook rather than actually cook, KidKraft's best-selling Uptown Espresso Kitchen comes with with dark-wood model cabinets, a drawn-on mosaic backsplash and real-looking stainless steel appliances. Last year the brand debuted a now-popular sushi making play food kit and is planning another contemporary lifestyle kitchen for next year. These marketers are taking it up a notch from the plastic hamburgers and hotdogs of yore.
"It's definitely getting way more sophisticated and that's in line with food in this country getting way more sophisticated. When I was a kid, we never ate sushi or Thai food," said Matan Wolfson, KidKraft director of U.S. sales. "Eating in America has become what it always has been in Europe."
And yet kids being kids, the idea is to also have fun. Science, art and food come together in cooking, making it fun to participate.
"When it's fun, instead of a chore, it becomes something kids want to do," said toy trend hunter Reyne Rice, citing the rise of STEAM, or Science Technology Engineering Art and Math programs, as a factor. "With kids doing more experimenting with science, it makes them more curious in general. They're building and growing their own gardens then taking the food they grow and cooking, or experimenting in the kitchen."