We eat with our eyes – and why colours rock!
Colour is the most important sensory component in setting people’s expectations when it comes to food. We really do eat with our eyes as we decide more about how a food is going to taste by its colour than anything else.
Young children and colour
Babies are naturally drawn to bright colours. They take in the world around them with their eyes and use colours to distinguish shapes and separate objects.
They find primary colours like red, yellow and blue easier to see, which is why most toys and other things aimed at small children are vibrant greens rather than pastel ones.
Before babies use words, they sort things by colour.
This of course, is useful to know from a food point of view. If colours are important then being exposed to lots of brightly coloured fruit and vegetables from an early age helps.
In fact, many children learn about colours by making associations with food. Red for apple, yellow for banana and well, orange!
Because young children are more drawn to bright colours than adults, repeatedly serving them and building those positive thoughts is a great way to support better eating.
Studies have shown that we are naturally drawn to foods that have the brightest or most intense colours. We will pick the shiniest apple or the strawberry with the deepest red.
This makes sense as in nature the foods that are brightly coloured are usually the ones that are ripest and therefore sweetest and provide the most natural energy.
Intense colour also signifies more nutritious phytochemicals!
Again, making sure that our children have multiple exposures to these naturally deeply coloured foods supports them to build a long-term comfort level with them.
First impressions count
Studies have shown that the colour of a food can have a huge impact on what we expect it to taste like. It is the reason that certain things are dyed. For example, many oranges have skins that are green. This would not be an “orange” in many consumers eyes and so the skins are artificially coloured.
Food and drinks have often been coloured for many years (even centuries). Carrots were naturally purple until consciously bred to be orange.
Studies show that how a food tastes and how we interpret the flavour is often decided and not consciously, but automatically, by our expectations of how it is going to taste.
Anyone who has a picky eater will know this is true! How many times have you heard “but I know I won’t like it!”.
Colour is important but our view of how something is going to taste is also based on branding, labelling, packaging and other variables, for example, when and where the food is served.
- Manufacturers put a lot of focus around building recognition of their products. And yes, you guessed it, colour often plays a big role. Products that are aimed at young children are often brightly coloured and have images that appeal.
Often picky eaters can become very fixated on a brand. They know even as toddlers that they like an exact food from a certain pot, which is a specific colour.
To get around this, a great idea is to make sure that foods are not associated with only one brand. Not serving foods in the pot or having the jar on the table, for example can help with this.
Parents who do have children with children who are stuck on a specific brand will tell you that this is a real pain!
If you are stuck on brands it can take a lot of time and effort to move away from these, but it can be done.
I remember speaking to a mum who was determined to support her son to eat more than one brand of chicken nugget. She served his favourites and one piece of a new brand next to it every time he ate them.
Two months after persevering with this, one night he picked up the new nugget, ate it and declared it OK. Mum sighed and then celebrated, privately!!
- This is more aimed at parents. Manufacturers also spend a lot of time making their food sound like something you must feed to a child (even if this is not entirely true).
When we have older children, who do find food more challenging, they too can start looking at labels and either accepting or rejecting foods based on what is listed.
- Yep, also produced to catch the eye. So many foods aimed at children have favourite Disney characters or the latest TV icon on the packaging.
Like branding, this can work against us as our child can become hooked on one specific pot or jar.
It can also work for us as we can use the same images to make foods more appealing. Having a spiderman sticker on an apple or gluing a Frozen picture on the outside of a mini pottle that we put raisins in, can make that food more appealing.
- Food is often eaten because of how, when or with who it is served.
There are many fussy children who eat better at creche or Kindy. There are others who will eat something with nanna but not with mum or dad.
Sometimes a child is willing to eat new foods with friends that they would not tackle at home.
If we do have a child that does eat better somewhere else than with us, it is a great sign. Yes, it is frustrating, but it is also a good thing! It means that they are able to do more than they show us.
A good way to approach this is to think carefully about what is happening away from home that supports them to eat more widely. Is it because nanna always bakes with them? Is it because the Kindy teacher sits with our child when they are having their snack?
What, if anything, can we replicate at home that will help them to eat more?
Studies have shown that how food is served can make a big difference to the way we perceive it. For example, if we served a blue drink in a plastic cup it could well make us think “mouthwash”. Whereas if we served the same blue drink in a cocktail glass, we would think “sweet”.
As the parent of a fussy eater we can use this to our advantage as well. How can we serve a food in a way that creates a positive association? Can we, for example, put it into an ice cream cone or a fancy bowl?
Studies have shown that we eat more lollies if they come in a variety of colours. Think Skittles or jelly beans! Even if a bag has only our favourite colour in it, we do not eat as many as when there are many colours.
The reason is not known for sure, but psychologists think it is probably boredom and that we need the different colours to give us new sensory input.
This is important for us when supporting our picky eater. Serving foods of only one or two colours often does lead to boredom. When our child is bored with the foods they eat, that in turn can mean that they become less interested in eating and can drop foods they previously accepted.
Changing the foods they are looking at, even if they are not eating them yet can really help with this.
Colours are often used in marketing to create a specific image:
- Green is thought of as fresh, eco-friendly, more organic.
- Bright colours are far more appealing in sweet foods.
- Yellow and orange are thought to increase our drive to eat and make us feel hungry.
- Red is the colour of emotion and passion.
- Put yellow and red together in a brand … hmm …😉
- White foods can inadvertently make us eat more as it is thought of as being empty and therefore harmless.
White plates are used because foods look brighter and more vibrant on them. Studies show that people even eat more from a white plate than from a black, red or blue one.
In fact, blue plates are used in weight loss programs as people do not eat as much. Who knew that the colour of a plate was so important!
For us, in feeding our children though, it shows how we can support our child to eat more comfortably by presenting foods on a plate that makes them look more appealing.
As parents, us modelling eating is always important.
A study showed that changing the colour of a popular dessert created a new food for a child. But that they accepted more of it if an adult was also eating the same dessert, dyed the same colour, than if there was no adult eating or they were eating the dessert in a different colour.
Our children learn far more from watching us eat than they do from us telling them what to do.
The comfort around colours can also be something we can work with to support a selective eater. For example, if we do have a child that is comfortable with brightly coloured berries, how can we use that colour to help them build a comfort level with a new food?
Can we dye the mash with beetroot juice?
Can we colour the milk green, call it swamp milk and use that to build a comfort level with other foods that are green?
What can we do?
This all got a bit sciencey!
But knowing how things influence our child can really help in supporting them to eat more confidently.
Judith is mum to two boys, a tween and a teen and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters. My dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
I delight in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master. I graduated from Cambridge University and have qualifications in nutrition, parent education and am a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline. I am currently working towards a Masters degree in Psychology. I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and to eventually spearhead research in this area.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/