Children’s Nutrition: Colorful Plates

Children's Nutrition: Colorful Plates

Parents of picky eaters ask themselves the same question every day: how do I ensure my children are getting the nutrition they need?  When a child’s palate is limited to only a handful of food choices, we naturally worry that he is not receiving all the vitamins, minerals, proteins and fats that are needed for optimal growth. As a parent of three picky eaters, I have tried everything from forming food into fun and interesting shapes to sneaking pureed vegetables into sauces and soups and hoping that my children won’t notice what they are eating. Sometimes it works, but more often than not it doesn’t and I’m left with a plateful of puppy-shaped fruits and vegetables or a soup that according to my kids “tastes weird”.  I discovered that I hadn’t been using the most persuasive tactics available. Shapes and disguises may not work, but according to a Cornell University study, color does.

A Colorful Study

The study, published in the January 2012 issue of Acta Paediatrica (101:1), finds that colorful food fare is more appealing to children than adults. Researchers presented 23 preteen children and 46 adults with full-size photos of 48 different combinations of food on plates that varied by number of items, placement of entree and organization of the food.Compared with adults, children prefer food plates with seven different items and six different colors, while adults tend to prefer only three items and three colors.

Read more about an (unplanned) artificial color experiment

Testing The Research

Deciding to test this experiment at home, I tried to plan my next dinner meal using as much color and variety as possible. This was not as easy task. Choosing seven different items and six different colors to go onto one plate requires more thought and time than I was used to. I normally plan meals by ensuring there are at least one protein, one grain and two vegetables available. For this experiment, I selected baked white fish as the protein, brown rice as the complex carbohydrate and steamed green broccoli and red peppers as the vegetables. I quickly realized that I only have 4 items and 4 colors.

Perusing the contents of my fridge and tapping into my creativity, I placed some sliced red tomatoes on top of fish (knowing full well that one of my three kids dislikes tomatoes) and chopped up some orange carrots and celery (again, knowing one of the kids has a strong aversion to celery) and added it to the brown rice. I then added yellow peppers to the vegetable medley. I realized, too late, that I had used the color red twice as both the tomatoes and red peppers are red. I also wondered if light green celery and dark green broccoli could be considered two different colors or if they were one in same as they were both shades of green. Examining the plate even closer, I began to question the placement of the vegetables: If I mix the broccoli, red peppers and yellow peppers together does that count as one selection or three? I decided to play it safe and separate the vegetables into three different piles. In the end, I had 6 colors and 6 items on my plate, I think.  At this point, I was done coming up with ideas and counting.

Fussy Eaters

At dinner, I carefully watched the outcome of my efforts. One child, naturally, picked off the tomatoes, another pushed the celery to the side and another one only ate one color of peppers and when I asked why she didn’t eat the other color her reply was that she already had peppers why does she need to eat more. I couldn’t argue with that; I probably should have selected another vegetable that was also another color.  The baked white fish didn’t go over so well either. Was it because it was white and technically not a color? I wonder if I had chosen salmon or trout if the pink colored flesh would have been more aesthetically pleasing.

In the end, my fussy eaters only ate what they liked, just like they do on any other evening. It didn’t matter to them that their plate was colorful, or that there was a lot to choose from, which bring me to my own conclusion: Picky eaters will only eat what they want and what they like, that’s why they are picky eaters. It doesn’t matter how many other foods you present on the plate or how pretty and colorful the plate looks. If there is an item on the plate your kid doesn’t like, he is not going to eat it.

Read more nutrition tips for picky eaters

Back To Basics

What we can only hope for as parents, that our children will outgrow their fussiness.  All we can do is to continue to present our kids with nutritious, healthy food options and hope in time their palates will change and they will be willing to try, and even come to enjoy, a variety of foods. We can also model good nutrition habits and include healthy options in our own diets.  In the meantime, I think I am going to go back to sneaking foods inside sauces, soups, smoothies and ground meats. Sometimes, I get lucky and they don’t even notice.

Image: Pixel Fantasy


Medical News Today, “Colorful Plates Boost a Picky Eater’s Appetite”

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Joanne is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist. Her interest in nutrition and holistic health was ignited as a result of her desire to instil positive eating and lifestyle choices in her family. As a mother of three active school-aged children, Joanne knows firsthand the challenges busy families face in choosing and preparing healthy meals. Her special interests are in promoting healthy traditional diets at home and helping families meet the changing nutritional needs of their growing children. Joanne also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature and a post graduate certificate diploma in Public Relations. She has worked in nonprofit and corporate PR for the past 15 years. Joanne believes the key to healthy living lies in natural nutrition and has taken a keen interest in wanting to raise public awareness of the benefits of natural living. In addition to her freelance public relations writing and event planning services, Joanne has a nutrition consulting practice offering one-on-one consulting, group workshops and menu planning for families.