Want Your Kids to Eat More Fruits and Vegetables?: Use Your Creative Side When It Comes to Their Plates

Hey parents, don't assume your kids share your preferences for food. According to a new study, young children prefer plates that feature a wide variety of foods and colors. Here's how to do it.
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Researchers studying the impact of age on food preferences have demonstrated patterns of change that start in the womb and continue through adulthood. For example, if breastfeeding mothers consume a diet that regularly includes fruits and vegetables, their infants will be more interested to eat the same healthful foods -- in contrast with formula-fed infants -- and this effect appears to persist through weaning. Among older children and adults, the avoidance of new or unfamiliar foods (i.e. neophobia) is generally recognized to decrease; however, there is evidence that suggests that older adults develop a stable set of food preferences that is resistant to change.

The finding that aging tends to impact the diversity of one's food preferences clearly makes it important to encourage the development and maintenance of a broad array of food preferences among infants, toddlers and older children.

Be Creative With Your Child's Plate!

Researchers at Cornell University and London Metropolitan University have shown that getting your kids to eat more fruits and vegetables is as simple as putting together a pretty plate of food. A new study shows that while food presentation has been shown to have significant impacts on the way adults eat food, that the same principles can be applied to understanding preferences among children in relation to increasing the diversity of their diet.

In what they called a "preliminary" study, the researchers showed 23 children age 5 to 12 (in attendance at a summer camp in Ithaca, N.Y.) 48 different combinations of food on plates, asking them which were their favorites. They repeated the exercise online with 46 adults. The plates varied by number and mixing of colors; number of components; position of the main component; whether they were crowded or empty; whether they were organized or disorganized; and whether the elements on them were arranged into a picture (such as a heart or a smile.)

Results showed that kids preferred different qualities in a dinner plate than grownups. The differences they observed, suggest that strategies to encourage healthy eating among kids need to be tuned more specifically to children's visual preferences. See below for kids versus adult plate preferences:

Kids Preferred: 7 different food items (the largest number the researchers included), 6 different food colors (the largest number the researchers included), their main food component towards the bottom of their plate, foods arranged into a picture.

Adults Preferred: 3 different food items, 3 different food colors, their main food component in the center of their plate, foods arranged into a "casual" plate design.

It is interesting to note that in a report by Kahn and Wansink, children and adults tend to consume more food (e.g. M&Ms) when there is a greater variety of options (e.g. differently colored M&Ms). Similar findings of overconsumption have been made for studies where participants are presented with varied sets of yogurt and combinations of different food, such as chocolate brownies with vanilla ice cream as compared with simply chocolate brownies.

If children and adults eat more of the unhealthy food items when a variety of options and colors are presented, then it seems intuitive that the same would occur when they are presented a variety of options and colors of fruits and vegetables. However, the recent study finds that adults should not assume that children share their preferences for food presentation, especially, when it comes to the finding that young children appear to prefer plates that feature a wide variety of foods and colors in comparison with adult preferences.

These results should open a window of possibilities for those concerned with childhood nutrition because it would appear as if young children have a preference - to which adults do not typically cater -- for very diverse food presentations. The results suggest amazing opportunities to encourage more nutritionally diverse diets among children and have potential positive implications for parents, caretakers and pediatricians as well as food service managers for pediatric hospitals, child care centers and schools.

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