How kids rank different ways of putting food on a plate

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A child’s age and gender affect how they want their food arranged on their plate, research shows.

“As a researcher, I have anecdotally heard parents say that their children prefer to have their food served in a particular way, including in a specific order. But we do not have much evidence-based knowledge about how children sort and eat their food, which is very relevant when, for example, we want our children to eat more vegetables—or eat their food in general,” says Annemarie Olsen, associate professor at the Future Consumer Lab, part of the food science department at the University of Copenhagen.

The research could also be useful for optimizing school lunches.

Children eat more fruits and vegetables if they’re in small portions and freely available, which shows that visual presentation affects how much they eat. “At the same time, it would be nice to know whether there are big gains to be made just by arranging food on the plate in a certain way,” says Olsen.

food arranged on three plates
(Credit: U. Copenhagen)

The researchers asked 100 schoolchildren, aged 7–8 and 12–14 years, to rank photos of six different dishes served in three different ways:

  • With the elements of the food presented separately so they did not touch each other
  • As a mix of separate ingredients and ingredients that were mixed together
  • With all the food mixed together.

From the children’s prioritization of the displayed photos, the researchers could see which presentation of the food they liked best and which serving style they cared for least.

The study shows that younger girls (aged 7-8) prefer the separate serving style, while boys of the same age do not have a preference for food arrangement. The research also shows that children between 12 and 14 years prefer food to be either mixed together or served as a mix of separate and mixed-together ingredients.

The research does not say why younger girls prefer to have their food served as separate ingredients.

“One suggestion could be that they believe that the different ingredients could contaminate each other. But it could also be that they prefer to eat the different elements in a certain order or that the clear delineation just provides a better overview,” says Olsen, who, based on the research, advises that you serve food separated on the plate—at least when it comes to the younger age groups.

“Of course, the child can mix the food when the various elements of the food are separated on the plate, while the reverse is not possible,” she says.

The research appears in the Journal of Sensory Studies. Funding came from Nordea-fonden.

Source: University of Copenhagen