Food presentation impacts kids' meal preferences, study suggests

By Mary Ellen Shoup contact

- Last updated on GMT

In general, younger kids tended to prefer a separated style, while older kids indicated less of preference and higher liking of mixed meal components, researchers of the study noted. ©GettyImages/DGLimages
In general, younger kids tended to prefer a separated style, while older kids indicated less of preference and higher liking of mixed meal components, researchers of the study noted. ©GettyImages/DGLimages

Related tags: Food for kids

Being a picky eater as a child may not have to do just with taste and familiarity, but also the way food is presented and arranged on a plate, recent research from Future Consumers Lab showed.

According to the Nestle FITS (Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study)​, it can take up to eight or nine attempts before a child starts to like a particular vegetable. But what if the way the vegetable or other healthy food is arranged on the plate is playing a role?

The study​ published in the Journal of Sensory Sciences​ revealed meal servings preferences between age groups and gender of children. 

“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,”​ said study author Annemarie Olsen, associate professor from the Future Consumer Lab, at the department of food science at the University of Copenhagen.

Olsen added that research insights into how children like their food arranged could not only help parents and guardians at home but also schools developing meal programs.

“This knowledge may optimize areas of the food industry, for example, in the context of ready‐to‐eat lunches brought to the children at school. Using serving styles with division of the food either into more rooms or by simply separating the placement of food items on 

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the plate may allow children to adopt the serving style in accordance with their personal preferences, which may increase acceptance of the meal,”​ researchers added.

Together, separate, or in-between?

The study surveyed 100 school-aged children (7- to 8-years-old and 12- to 14-years-old) asking them to rank their preference of six different dinner meals presented as photos. Each meal included various food items including vegetables either presented together, separated, or in between (some mixing, some separation).

The children were shown an example of an apple to demonstrate how the test was to be done by interviewers, followed by the dinner meals; (1) meatballs, (2) spaghetti, (3) stir‐fry, (4) fajitas, (5) pasta salad, and (6) fish filet.

The children scored their liking of each meal on a 7-point smiley scale, researchers noted.

Differences emerged between genders among younger participants (7- to 8-years old). According to researchers, younger girls significantly preferred a separated serving style, while no specific serving style was preferred among younger boys.

Older children significantly preferred an in‐between serving style and mixed serving style over separated serving style, but no gender differences were found between the older children.

According to the research, the most preferred serving style differed significantly between the two age groups in four of the six meals: spaghetti, stir‐fry, fajitas, and pasta salad.

For spaghetti, the older children preferred in‐between serving style and the younger children preferred in‐between/mixed serving style. For stir‐fry, the older children preferred mixed serving style and the younger children preferred separated serving style. For fajitas, the older children preferred mixed serving style, which the younger children also preferred (but not as much); and the older children preferred mixed serving style and the younger children preferred separated serving style for pasta salad.

Why younger children may prefer a separated style

Olsen hypothesized that a younger child’s aversion to mixing food on the plate could be the belief that “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,”​ Olsen continued.

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

Want to hear more about about the state of kids' food and nutrition? Don't miss FoodNavigator-USA's FOOD FOR KIDS summit next month (Nov. 12 -14) in Chicago! Register  HERE​. 

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