Link copied to clipboard

Everyone knows that grownups “eat with their eyes.” A prettily arranged plate, with a nice arrangement of foods and colors, makes everything look delicious. Restaurants go to great pains to make food look attractive.

Now we know that visually interesting food is important to children too. Making food look nice on the plate may be the secret to getting children to eat what’s good for them.

In a recent study at Iowa State University, elementary-grade children at a summer camp were presented in the cafeteria line with a digital sign featuring a rotating image of a salad. Imagine something along the lines of a typical fast-food restaurant burger promotion, but with attractive pictures of lettuce and other vegetables. Cafeteria choices included salad, of course, but also the usual sorts of kid entrees, like tacos, sloppy joes, and other favorites.

Cafeteria workers weighed the salad ingredients before and after the lunch period. They found that after the installation of the digital promotion of salad, that more salad was taken and less was left to be discarded from the salad bar at the end of the lunch. In fact, researchers found that boys were 50 to 70 percent more likely to serve themselves lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and carrots after the sign was installed than before.

According to the lead scientist, “You respond to the image on the display like you would respond to a plate in front of you. If you’re hungry you respond by saying, ‘I’ll have what’s in that picture.’”

Certainly, parents of children who are reluctant to eat their vegetables don’t need to install a video player in the dining room to loop images of lettuce in advance of every meal. But maybe we all could take a bit more care in presenting food attractively. Here are some salad presentation ideas.

1. Set up a mini salad bar with a couple different lettuces, some tomatoes or shredded carrots, sliced snap peas and other goodies. Offer an orange-juice-based dressing or even no dressing at all.

2. Use salad plates or little bowls or even dishes ordinarily reserved for ice cream.

3. Serve salad in taco shells, soft tortillas, or in bread bowls.

4. Make a bit of dining room theater out of tossing a salad in a big wooden bowl and scooping it out into individual salad bowls.

5. Garnish a “composed” salad – one you arrange on plates in the kitchen, like they do in restaurants – with intriguing extras. Add a curl of bacon one time, edible flowers another time (chemical-free nasturtiums, garden violets and even rose petals are possibilities), fruit, carrot curls or fish-cracker croutons whenever you feel like it.

6. Try making a layered salad by building it in a glass dish so the layers are visible.

7. Get kids involved in creating pretty salads and see what happens.

Just being aware of the way food looks can go a long way towards getting it eaten. One can’t make a big deal over vegetables every day, perhaps, but even once in a while can get children to take a taste once in a while.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.