When my kids were younger it was hard to get them to eat a variety of foods. I remember when they were preschool and early elementary age the snacks that they liked were cheese and crackers, apples and goldfish crackers. That was pretty much it. I would worry that they weren’t getting the variety of nutrients that they needed. When I would give them something like a carrot, raw broccoli, or bell peppers, they wouldn’t want to eat it, let alone give it a try.
Some kids seem to be born liking a variety of fruits and vegetables, or at least be open to trying new foods. My daughters have had friends that would eat whatever the parents were eating – veggie stir-fry, salads, spicy sauces, fruit salad (all the fruits in the salad, not just pick out one they will eat). My daughters have also had friends that would only eat packaged mac ‘n cheese or butter noodles. When we would run into those kids, I would consider myself lucky. It’s safe to say there is a large spectrum of what kids are willing to eat. My kids fell somewhere in the middle but they did get a lot better as they got older.
Recently I have found out that there is a term for not being open to trying new foods. It is called “food neophobia” and it literally means to be afraid of trying new foods. Food neophobia can be defined as the reluctance to eat, or avoidance of, new foods. This is distinctly different from being a picky or fussy eater, which is someone who consumes an inadequate variety of food through rejection of foods that are familiar as well as unfamiliar. Basically, people with food neophobia won’t eat unfamiliar foods, while picky/fussy eaters will not eat unfamiliar and familiar foods. These terms can be applied to both kids and adults, but researchers have shown that food neophobia generally decrease with age until it levels off during early adulthood. Food neophobia may start to increase again in older adults, possibly due to health concerns.
Why should we care about food neophobia and picky eating in kids? Because, as future nutrition professionals, we do care about childhood obesity, which happens to be a pretty good predictor of adult obesity. Many kids’ diets lack fresh fruits and vegetables. These have been replaced with unhealthy processed foods with high sugar, fat and salt content. This limited, but energy dense and high calorie diet, is widely considered to be a key factor in childhood obesity. Increasing acceptance of a variety of fruits and vegetables could be a key part of the solution.
Research has also shown that nagging your kids about eating their fruits and veggies, forcing them to eat fruits and veggies, and generally making a big deal about eating fruits and veggies DOES NOT work. Who knew? What has had some success is modeling and exposure WITHOUT making a big deal. The researchers in one 2003 study showed that it took 14 consecutive days of exposure for 2-6 year olds to increase their liking and eating of target vegetables. So you have to be persistent and patient. And most of all, you have to eat those fruits and vegetables yourself in front of your kids.
One thing that I found that helped my kids was getting them involved in preparing a snack with new or out-of-the-rut foods. If they took ownership in the food, they would be more likely to eat it. Also, it was helpful to present new foods in a fun way. Something that my kids loved was helping me put different snacks and dips in a muffin tin. I would use some foods that I knew they liked, some that were not their favorite foods, and new foods. One example is pictured here. This one has whole-wheat crackers, apples, low-fat ranch, and peanut butter, all which my kids liked, plus carrots (not so crazy about) and hummus (new food). But the possibilities are endless: raw broccoli or bell peppers, low-fat cheese sauce, grapes, oranges, cream cheese, strawberries, etc.
Hopefully you will find this information helpful. Like everything else with small children, sometimes the best way to make changes is in a way that is fun so they don’t realize what is happening. Happy eating!
Dovey TM, Staples PA, Gibson EL, Halford JCG. Food neophobia and ‘picky/fussy’ eating in children: A review. Appetite. 2008; 50:181-193.
Wardle J, Cooke LJ, Gibson EL, Sapochnik M, Sheiham A, Lawson M. Increasing children’s acceptance of vegetables: A randomized trial of parent-led exposure. Appetite. 2003; 40:155-162.