The optimal diet model entails that foragers look beyond the individual prey encounter, to at least the level of intake rate across a bout of foraging, but optimization over a longer time remains controversial. In this paper, we show how oystercatchers increase their intake over the longer term using mussel colour as a cue. Wintering oystercatchers Haematopus ostralegus feed extensively on mussels Mytilus edulis in the estuaries of southern Britain. They show a marked preference for brown–shelled mussels over the commoner black–shelled morph, and we show that this enables them to maximize their rate of energy gain over a longer period than a single foraging bout. The brown and black mussels did not differ in ventral thickness and energy content, which are the main criteria for mussel selection and most important for short–term optimization. The brown mussels contained significantly less moisture, so by selecting them, oystercatchers could pack more mussel flesh into their limited oesophageal storage capacity. This enables them to increase their overall consumption during a feeding bout and increases their long–run energy gain rate, to an extent that is large enough to be significant for survival, especially during the short exposure of the mussel beds in winter.