I grew up with a picky eater. My younger sister was so selective about what she would eat my parents would pay her a dollar to try a new food. That didn’t mean she would like it or ever eat it again (and most of the time she didn’t), but it was a start.
I was lucky. I was just a sibling to a picky eater, not the parent responsible for trying to make sure she ate something (and something healthy) at mealtime.
A recent study published in Acta Paediatrica offers a little research-based advice for parents struggling through the same battle. Researchers showed 23 pre-teen children and 46 adults full-size photos of 48 different combinations of food on plates. Variables included the number of items on the plates, placement of the entrée and the way the food was arranged on the plates.
“Compared with adults, children not only prefer plates with more elements and colors, but also their entrees placed in the front of the plate and with figurative designs,” said researcher Kevin Kniffin, PhD, of Cornell University.
The study authors admit they expected parents and children to have similar preferences, but the results showed children wanted seven different items and six different colors on their “ideal” plates. That’s compared to the adults, who said they preferred three items of different colors.
The kids in the study also preferred to see their entrées in the lower-right area of a round plate. Adults were more drawn to entrées shown on the center-right of the plate.
Children and adults both liked seeing a little empty space on the plate (rather than food crowding every inch). Both groups also preferred relatively disorganized food presentations (as opposed to neat, geometrical patterns) unless the food was arranged in what researchers called a “figure design”, for example, a strip of bacon used as a smile at the bottom of the plate or peas outlining a heart shape. As you might imagine, kids preferred the figure designs.
To bring this research home to your dining room table, the study authors suggest introducing a wide variety of foods at the same time, all on one plate. It’s not how most parents offer children new foods, but – if the results of this study apply in your home – it might be the curveball approach that helps broaden your picky eater’s horizons.