A helping plate?

Last year I was contacted by HAK. They asked me to collaborate with them in providing an independent research report containing scientific insights (a literature review) and some guidelines for them to design a plate that would help children consume more vegetables. I immediately thought this was a nice initiative that shows how scientific principles can address societal challenges.

Almost one year later the plate is on the market. What do I think about it? Will it help children eat more vegetables? There are many things to consider, and clarify.

Firstly, this plate is not intended to be a miracle plate, to work by itself. As its name indicates, it is intended to help. How so? Many of its features (the size, the deeper area, the colour..) are based on simple perceptual effects. For example, we know that food placed on larger plates is visually perceived as occupying less area (and therefore as less amount) compared to when placed in smaller plates, and viceversa. Also, consumption many times is based on the perceived amount we see, and not only on the actual amount. For many children, seeing an amount of vegetables larger than what they would desire puts them off, but if the tableware we use can change this perception for the better by means of different features, why not benefitting from this?

Second, it’s not about “tricking” children, as journalists often like to say. The children can well see the size, the deeper area… and of course the vegetables placed there. But at a more subconscious level, they would perceive it as being less amount, and/or more appealing. It’s the same as adults using smaller plates to control/limit their food intake, they are aware of this, yet this awareness doesn’t hinder the effect that they end up consuming less and get used to smaller portion sizes. It’s a matter of perception. It’s a fact that while eating we let ourselves be guided by many of our senses and that some rules apply to all human beings.

Thirdly, there are children and children. Some are more picky eaters than others, some dislike vegetables more than others, etc. There is simply not one rule that works for all, so we can’t expect a solution to work effectively for all children. Parents have their own techniques/games to encourage children to eat more vegetables, but this is not exclusive from counting with additional help and knowing that the presentation of food in a plate is also influential. The impact of course might vary from child to child and their existing habits. Naturally a good education and an early learning of different flavours and textures is important.

Parents can use the principles and design their own solutions, and of course I can imagine some parents being reluctant to believe that such features work with their kids. That is natural to think, but what cannot be neglected is that the way in which food is presented and arranged on a plate impacts our perception of the food and potentially how much we eat from it. Considering this I think the “helpende bord” is a good tool for parents to have in their toolbox to encourage healthier eating in children. See also this newspaper article (in Dutch).

Note: the research was limited to providing scientific insights and design guidelines and was entirely independent from any commercial interests.

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