Purpose - This paper seeks to explore the design, organisation and application of group discussions in which projective techniques (expressive and associative) are used to unravel health perception of consumers in cognitive and affective terms. Design/methodology/approach - A trained moderator led four group discussions in which 24 Dutch women, divided into two groups of six women aged between 50 and 65, and two groups of women with young children (0-7 years old) participated. By means of expressive and associative techniques participants discuss health and food based on non-verbal expressions, namely, drawings and abstract paintings made by themselves. The participants selected and discussed relevant terms related to food and health based on their interpretations and associations of images. Findings - Participants related healthy to feeling free and happy (affective) and implied a balance between being active and passive. "Health" and "food" are associated with terms of nature (e.g. season, water and sun), specific products (vegetables and fruits), ingredients (vitamins, fibres, minerals) and no additives (cognitive). Originality/value - The expressive and associative group discussions proved to be a promising, fascinating and participant-friendly approach to gain an insight into the affective and the cognitive aspects that consumers relate to health-promoting product characteristics.