“My child is a fussy eater. How do I fix it?”
It’s a common lament of a parent. But help is on the way. The first place to start? Work on how that food actually looks first. As anyone in the restaurant business knows, presentation is (almost) everything, but the same logic surely applies to getting your kids to eat their school lunches, right?
That turns out to be true, according to research from the University of Copenhagen which found that children of different ages and genders have clear preferences when it comes to how their meals look on their plates.
With the return of school come the daily issues of what to pack our picky kids for lunch and, once they get home again, how to nutritiously combine textures, colours and tastes to produce an evening meal that they’re likely to eat?
Maybe a little science can help us out, as a new study has found that while some kids like their foods strictly separated on their plate, others prefer to have them mixed.
Fussy little eaters. Turns out kids really care about the way their food is presented…
Researchers asked 100 children of two age groups —seven to eight and 12 to 14 years old— to rank photos of six different dishes presented either with the elements separated so that they did not touch each other, with all the elements mixed together or with a combination of the two approaches.
The study found that girls in the younger age group preferred the separate serving style while the younger boys had no preference. For the older group, preference was given to the mixed plate or combination of mixed and separated, with no measurable gender differences.
Lead researcher Annemarie Olsen of the Future Consumer Lab at the University of Copenhagen says that the results can inform food preparation practices not just in the home but also in institutional settings.
“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 Olsen in a press release.
While the study does not address the question of why children prefer different serving styles, Olsen has her guesses. “One suggestion could be that they believe that the different ingredients could contaminate each other,” she says. “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.”
Olsen advises that when dealing with the younger age group, at least, the best approach might be to keep the foods separate. That way, if your kid wants to mix everything around on their plate, they’re free to do so.