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Do kids care about how food is served? Study may help parents of picky eaters

Children of various ages have unique preferences, but science says there’s an ideal way to plate food.
children don't want to eat vegetables
children don't want to eat vegetablesGetty Images stock
/ Source: TODAY

There's more than one way to solve the problem of a picky eater at the dinner table.

You can pull a Neil Patrick Harris and start kids on sushi at a young age. Or you can add a touch of honey to vegetables or make them into "crispies" like TODAY Tastemaker Siri Daly. Or you can let the kids put on their chefs' hats and have some fun in the kitchen together (just worry about the mess later).

But once you've got the food prepared, how do you plate it up? Babies tend to mash up their food all over the table, themselves and maybe you ... and the dog ... and the wall. Toddlers might resist it all together, while older kids may just use their dynamic verbal skills to simply protest how "gross" that chicken looks on the plate.

So is there really an ideal way to serve food to children?

A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Copenhagen's Department of Food Science demonstrated that kids of varying ages and genders actually do prefer how their food gets plated up and that may influence how much of it they eat. According to the study, keeping individual items separate will likely yield the most success when it comes to a clean plate at dinner's end, especially for younger age groups.

"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," said associate professor Annemarie Olsen from the university's Future Consumer Lab.

"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."

Costa Rican Black Beans and Rice (Gallo Pinto)

The study's goal was not only to help parents and other caregivers but to enhance school meal programs and school food suppliers to get children to eat better. Researchers asked 100 children ages 7 to 8 and 12 to 14 to prioritize six photos of dishes plated three different ways: one with the food completely separate; one with the food separate but ingredients mixed (like the chicken's gravy on top of the rice with a side of vegetables); and one with the food diced up and all mixed together.

Girls in the younger age cohort preferred the foods separated, which researchers speculated may be because of a thought that the different foods contaminate each other. The majority of younger boys had no consistent preference but the older age group preferred some of the ingredients mixed or all of it mixed.

So what does it all mean?

Based on the research, Olsen suggested that the ideal way to plate food for children is to keep all the food separate. That way, younger children will be more inclined to eat the ingredients, each in their own special section of the plate, and older children, should they prefer some aspects mixed, have the authority to do it themselves.

Bon appétit!