Playing with Food can be a Good Thing

25 Jul 2013 06.52 am by Allripe team

Being a good chef requires more than just the ability to conjure a memorable experience of flavours. It also requires the art of presenting food in a manner that makes our stomachs growl. A good chef always knows to appeal to the visual assessment of food because most of the time presentation is a key feature that entices an appetite. A study from Cornell University has found however, that “what a kid finds visually appealing is very different from what appeals to their parent” said Brain Wansink a professor of marketing.

The study presented 23 pre-teen children and 46 adults with 48 photos of different combinations of food on a plate.  The study revealed that children preferred a plate with a larger variety of colours and foods, roughly around 6 colours and 6 different foods. On the other hand, adults found that a plate with 3 colours and 3 foods appear of appetizing. It also found that, for example, arranging peas into a love heart or bacon into a smiley face positively influences a child’s assessment of food. So why do children prefer more colours and foods arranged in unconventional ways? And what does this have to say about how children assess their food?

The Cornell University study did not discuss why children preferred a larger variety of colours and foods severed in a particular arrangement. However, there are a number of other studies which suggest that a child’s assessment of food is largely influenced by a “fun and entertaining” appeal to food. This possibly explains why children would prefer a colourful plate with interesting shapes of which through a child’s eyes would appear fun and entertaining.  This introduces a new dimension to the conventional boundaries of food assessment that has largely been defined by how adults assess food. Adults are more concerned with the nutritional benefits, flavours and textures assessed by touch, vision, smell and taste. All of which entice an appetite. In comparison, a child’s appetite appears to be enticed by visual cues that are associated with “fun and entertaining” features rather than nutritional benefits, safety and flavours that may otherwise require a level of abstract thinking. Stimulating a child’s appetite is entwined with their emotional experience.   

A study by Charlene Elliot from the University of Calgary, which looks at how children are influenced by the packaging of food supports the belief that children’s appetites are enticed by what she describes as “fun and entertaining” presentations. Marketers understand this and it is reflected in the way food is marketed to children in all sorts of shapes that resemble toys or how M&M can be found in a range of colours. The happy meal is a perfect illustration of a child’s psychology of food assessment. The name “happy meal” engages the emotion of happiness while presenting a toy associates the meal with entertainment. 

While there has been a lot of studies that show how children prefer certain colours and how they respond better to bright colours or less so with dim colours, there have been few studies done concerning how individual colours influences a child’s assessment of food. Are children repelled by the colour red given the anxious feeling that is commonly associated with the colour? Or are they drawn to pink food due to the calming effect it has on people? It is suggested though, that the colour blue being an uncommon colour found in nature, is found to be an appetite suppressant. Yet we still find that children are drawn to blue bubble gum and would probably eat a blue M&M if presented one. 

When a child is presented with food, unlike adults they process different information which is related to how it makes them feel in the moment in terms of “fun and entertainment”. This introduces a different aspect to food assessment where food assessment is more entwined with the emotional experience than with a complex combination of flavours, smells and textures. Studies suggest that this is possibly because children have yet to develop the ability to think abstractly that would otherwise enable them to comprehend more complex ideas. Instead, children tend to assess how fun food is and how entertaining it can be and maybe it is not a bad thing after all when children play with their food.


food presentation  
food arrangement  
fun and entertaining  
playing with food  

  • Zampollo F, Kniffin K M., Wansink B & Shimizu M 2012, ‘Food plating preferences of children: the importance of presentation on desire for diversity’, ACTA Paediatrica, Vol. 101:1, pp. 61-66.
  • Elliott C D. 2009, ‘Entertaining Eats: Children’s “Fun Food” and the Transformation of the Domestic Foodscape’, Material Culture Review, Vol. 70, 34-42.

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