How Children Want Their Food Served

Summary: According to a new study, children have different preferences for how their food is served, based on gender and age.

Source: University of Copenhagen.

The aim of the research from Future Consumer Lab was to investigate whether children prefer their food served in a particular way and whether their gender and age make a difference with regard to their preferences.

‘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,’ says Associate Professor Annemarie Olsen from Future Consumer Lab, at the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen.

In addition to being a helping hand for parents, the research can be used to optimise meal programmes in schools and meals that are delivered to pupils by external suppliers.

Big gains with little effort

We already know that you can get children to eat more fruits and vegetables just by presenting them in small portions and making them freely available, so you can easily grab them and eat them. We also know that the visual presentation affects how much children eat.

‘At the same time, it would be nice to know whether there are big gains to be made just by arranging food on the plate in a certain way,’ says Annemarie Olsen.

100 children ranked food according to their preferred serving style

The researchers asked 100 schoolchildren, aged 7-8 and 12-14 years, to make a priority list of photos of six different dishes served in three different ways:

  • With the elements of the food presented separately so they did not touch each other
  • As a mix of separate ingredients and ingredients that were mixed together
  • With all the food mixed together

From the children’s prioritisation of the displayed photos, the researchers could see which presentation of the food they liked best and which serving style they least cared for. The study shows that the younger girls (aged 7-8) prefer the separate serving style, while boys of the same age do not have a preference for how the food is arranged. The research also shows that children between 12 and 14 prefer food to be either mixed together or served as a mix of separate and mixed-together ingredients.

A separated serving style is the best solution

The research does not say why younger girls prefer to have their food served as separate ingredients.

‘One suggestion could be that they believe that the 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,’ says Annemarie Olsen, who, based on the research, advises that you serve food separated on the plate – at least when it comes to the younger age groups.

a child eating
In addition to being a helping hand for parents, the research can be used to optimise meal programmes in schools and meals that are delivered to pupils by external suppliers. image is in the public domain.

‘The child can mix the food when the various elements of the food are separated on the plate, while the reverse is not possible,’ she says.

About this neuroscience research article

Funding: The research is financed by Nordea-fonden.

Source: Lene Hundborg Koss – University of Copenhagen
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract for “Serving style preferences for various meal arrangements among children” by S. E. Nielson, S. Skouw, and A. Olsen in Journal of Sensory Studies. Published August 15 2018.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]University of Copenhagen”How Children Want Their Food Served.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 3 September 2018.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]University of Copenhagen(2018, September 3). How Children Want Their Food Served. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved September 3 2018 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]University of Copenhagen”How Children Want Their Food Served.” (accessed September 3 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Serving style preferences for various meal arrangements among children

Serving styles of meals are important for children’s acceptance, but few studies have investigated how children prefer to have their meals served. The aim of this study was to investigate children’s preferred serving styles of typical dinner meals in younger and older children. A total of 100 school children aged 7–8‐years and 12–14‐years old preference‐ranked six different dinner meals presented with the various food items arranged on the plate as either separated, in‐between (some mixing, some separation), or mixed serving style using pictorial stimuli. They also scored their liking of each meal on a 7‐point smiley scale. Younger girls significantly preferred a separated serving style (p ≤ .001), while no specific serving style was preferred among younger boys. Older children significantly preferred in‐between serving style (p ≤ .001) and mixed serving style (p ≤ .01) over separated serving style, but no gender differences were found between the older children.

Practical applications
As specific serving style preferences are seen in some children this knowledge could be incorporated into the preparation of daily meals for families and institutions alike. Serving meals and foods in a separated serving style could be a way of allowing the child to control the degree of possible subsequent mixing of the food items on the plate according to their individual, personal preferences. In contrast, serving a child a meal constituted by mixed food items limit the possibility of separating the elements afterward. 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 the plate may allow children to adopt the serving style in accordance with their personal preferences, which may increase acceptance of the meal.

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