The New Foods Struggle: How to Decrease Fear and Increase Familiarity

Written By: Alan Greene, M.D.

Meal times are a unique chance for the whole family to gather round and invest in a common experience. This is an opportunity to share and bond with one another. There are, however, a few things that may make mealtime somewhat anxiety-inducing, including children who are very choosey about what they will or won’t eat.

Some children are particularly sensitive to taste, scents, or textures. Regardless, most children go through a phase called neophobia that begins around the time they start to walk. Neophobia is characterized by a fear of new things, particularly foods or unfamiliar elements in the environment. It slowing increases from about age 2.5 to 3, and then remains steady until around 9 years old.

The reason for this is an evolutionary intelligence – as children begin to walk and are able to toddle away from their caregivers, there is an increase in the likelihood of encountering something dangerous, whether it is an animal, a potentially toxic food, or unsafe territory in general. Taste plays a very important role in this phenomena. Sweet and salty flavors the body generally recognizes as safe and nutrient-rich. Bitter flavors, often present to some degree in vegetables, can indicate potential toxicity. Sourness tells the body that a food may be spoiled, and therefore dangerous to ingest. It is important to recognize, then, that “picky eating” is a feature, and not a flaw. It is a reflection of the body’s ability to distinguish between safe and potentially harmful foods, which is quite remarkable.

In order for children to be open to a wider variety of foods, specifically fruits and vegetables, it’s most helpful to introduce them before they are walking well, around 15 months. At this point their palate and overall chemistry is more receptive to new foods. Other things that have a major influence on what children will eat include watching what their parents and older siblings eat. There is often a fear that something unfamiliar will taste bad, and so the goal is to decrease fear and increase familiarity. Studies have shown that even if a child sees their parents choose a particular brand one time, years later they are still predisposed to choose the same brand. It is important not to underestimate how much children learn by observation.

By the same token, “authority figures” also have an influence. Like it or not, children gravitate towards packaging with cartoon characters. In one experiment, children were 50% more likely to want broccoli when it had a sticker of Elmo on it. This can be helpful when it’s applied to healthy foods, but not so much when you’re trying to avoid over-processed foods covered in fun cartoon pictures.

Even if children were not exposed to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables at an early age, there is research showing there are ways to overcome this. A study done to encourage cats to eat bananas, which they typically shy away from, concluded that when a sense of pleasure was associated with an undesirable food, over time the flavor would become desirable, even when the pleasure reward was revoked. The fascinating aspect was that baby kittens were watching their mothers eat the bananas, and were not exposed to the same pleasure reward. The kittens still willingly ate the bananas simply because they had watched their mothers do it.

Preparing food together is another way in which children will be more excited to try new things. Children want to be included in all aspects of daily life, and they want to be praised for what they have done. Cooking together naturally makes kids more excited to try the end product. Studies have shown that involving children in preparing and cooking food makes them much more likely to eat vegetables, and even more so if they were able to pick the vegetables out themselves. To create an even deeper connection, growing and nurturing vegetables in the garden, then picking them and preparing them together makes for the most rewarding experience of all.

Another way to incorporate new foods is to include something new and different into something children already like, such as adding vegetable toppings to pizza, or mixing them into a sauce. These can be seen as “flavor bridges.” It can also be helpful to reduce foods with added sugars. This gives the palate a break, and helps it to recognize the natural sweetness in fruits and veggies, making them more enticing.

Some parents may be familiar with the idea of offering a sweet treat in exchange for finishing a serving of veggies. Historically there has been some controversy around whether “bribery” is an effective tactic. However, a study from The Journal of Health Economics in 2016 showed that when a reward was put in place for eating more fruits and vegetables, not only did that increase their consumption, but children were still more likely to make healthy choices even after the reward was removed. In this sense it’s possible that children were encouraged to overcome a fear of unfamiliar flavors, able to make the them more familiar, and thus more likely to be eaten in the future.

Above all it’s important to be patient, and try, try again. If children are resistant to healthy foods, encourage a culture of the “no, thank you,” bite. Even if a child thinks they don’t want a certain food, make it a habit to include everything on the plate at each meal, with the expectation that they must try at least one bite of everything. On average it may take up to 89 tries before a new food becomes likeable. It may sound like a lot, but each individual bite is a step towards that goal. The “no, thank you,” bite also teaches a culture of politeness and gratitude around food. Even if a child doesn’t like a particular food, they can still learn to be grateful for the long and laborious process of growing, shipping and preparing the food before it lands on their plate.

For more ways to encourage healthy food choices, listen to our podcast here.

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