Picky eating is predominantly thought of as a trait for describing children, that they would prefer a plate of french fries to a plate of french fries and vegetables. But, reversing popular conception, a team of researchers from Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management has found that children actually prefer a larger variety of foods on their plates than adults do.
Prof. Brian Wansink, applied economics and management, and his postdoctoral research associates Kevin Kniffin and Mitsuru Shimizu compared how children and adults find food appealing. The Food and Brand Lab examines how consumers relate to their food.
“The purpose of the experiment was to see the real differences on how children and adults prefer food,” Shimizu said.
Wansink’s group showed 23 children, all between the ages of five and 12, 48 different pictures of plates full of foods such as steak, peas, oranges, strawberries and carrots. The researchers then asked the kids to rank the dishes based on what they preferred. The pictures varied by amount of food, color and the positioning of foods on plates. The researchers then repeated the exercise with 46 adults and compared the results.
“We found significant differences on a variety of dimensions with respect to how adults and children view what the ideal plate of food looks like,” Kniffin said.
Their results, published in the pediatrics journal Acta Paediatrica, showed that adults, on average, prefer plates with three food items and three colors, while children prefer plates with seven items and six colors. The researchers also found that children favor having their main entrée placed in the lower left of their plates; adults however, prefer to have the main entrée located in the plate’s center.
“Kids are not just little adults,” Kniffin said. “Understanding this fact opens a window that potentially has broad consequences for all kinds of institutions, particularly schools.”
Adults often make meals for children and may unconsciously create less appealing meals that are based on their own personal preferences about food, which are not shared by kids, Kniffin said. For example, many schools and camps have plates that are divided into three segments. This, Kniffin said, is how adults prefer to present food. According to the research, children would prefer plates with more partitions for food.
Shizimu noted that this idea is reflected in Japanese packed lunches called bento boxes.
“Japanese bento boxes have more pockets for more items; because children prefer more items on their plates. Bento boxes may improve lunches for children in America,” he said.
Additionally, kids also like to have their food in fanciful designs. Shizimu said that in Japan, character bento boxes are popular among children. These boxes have colorful foods made into shapes of pandas, cats, bunnies and many other animals. According to Wansink’s research, these types of lunches are more likely to make children want to eat all of their food.
Kniffin cautioned that these results, do not mean children will eat these varied colors and foods, especially vegetables. People are born with over 10,000 taste buds. As a person ages, these cells die and, consequently, adults have fewer taste buds than children. Children perceive foods such as vegetables as more bitter or sour due to their abundance of highly tuned taste buds and will not eat them, Kniffin said. Instead, young children often turn to bland foods such as chicken nuggets or pasta.
Kniffin suggested that further research will need to be done to determine if these visual results carry over into the realm of taste, especially when food is shaped into more fanciful designs.