Childhood mealtimes: where grilled cheese and chicken fingers are their own food group, the only vegetables consumed are the ones hiding in other foods, and too many colors on the plate can be a deal-breaker.
Kids and picky eating can go hand-in-hand. While it can be reassuring to know that most finicky eating is perfectly normal,some parents are just trying to get through the day without the dinner table turning into a debate stage (again...).
So what’s the deal? Is there a science behind picky eaters? Yes - there’s science to everything!
Clean Plate Snub
While picky eating (sometimes called "fussy eating") can be hard to measure, it's typically thought of as the rejection of all but a small set of foods, resulting in the consumption of an inadequate variety. But there’s a psychology of picky eaters.
Sometimes it can also include individuals who don't eat enough food, despite variety. Kids may object to the taste, smell, or texture of foods, or they might be unwilling to try new ones. Fruits, vegetables, and those healthy foods with strong textures (soft and mushy or hard and crunchy, depending on the eater) are among the most common items children are refusing to eat.
Below the surface,picky eating is sometimes genetic. For example, "supertasters" are those who have more cell receptors on their tongues, and are therefore much more sensitive to the bitterness of certain vegetables or the pain of spicy foods.
Since an abundance of cell receptors can be inherited, supertasters can pass on their sensitivity to their kids. On the other hand, it can also just be a child exerting independence and control over their own body. Picky eating is often seen in toddlers and peaks around age 3, but some parents see it persist through early childhood.
New Food, No Way!
One aspect of picky eating can be food neophobia - the reluctance to eat, or the avoidance of new foods. This fear response is actually a normal part of a child's development (normally peaks around 2 years of age) and the majority of children go through this phase. Your child will show this by trying to avoid unfamiliar foods that may have a different color, shape, or texture they are unfamiliar with.
Kids' brains develop a template based on foods they know they like and will use it to decide before ever putting a single bite in their mouths - whether or not they should try a new food or incorporate more healthy eating habits into their day. If it looks similar to something they like, they'll probably try it. But if it's something too unfamiliar, or that looks like something they know they don't like? That's likely to be a no-go...at first.
What can you do?
The good news is, positive experiences with the food can begin to gradually change a child's perspective.
Take your time! Repeated exposures to new foods - even without tasting them - allows them to be added to the child's schema of acceptable things to eat.
Keep in mind, though, children’s eating habits take longer to develop. A child might require up to 15 positive exposures to deem a food acceptable, and negative experiences add up too. Even an initial fear of a novel dish can set up a negative association that can take much more exposure to overcome.
Offer foods in different forms. Think about the way you’re offering the food - is there are more appetizing way to present your meals?
Problems at the Plate
Picky eating does usually begin to improve after age 6, but that is not always the case. Most picky eating is the result of preference - children and adults alike tend to eat only the specific foods they enjoy while avoiding others.
Here are a few tips of how to encourage kids to eat healthier and step outside of their comfort zone!
- Explore New Foods Together
Before you can taking about healthy food intake, it’s important to broaden food preferences as a family. If your child is around others who eat a variety of foods, such as parents, siblings, and peers, they may be less hesitant to try those foods themselves.
- Take the Kitchen Back
Bring your kids in to help make their meals. Cooking can help to create a sense of accomplishment and understanding of where their food is coming from. Cooking not only provides positive experiences, but it gets them experiencing food before tasting.
Our Adventure Series offers a variety of recipes from different cultures and time periods. This is a great way to tap into your child's interests outside of food such as history, reading, science or story telling to help motivate them to experience food.
- Know Your Digestion
Understanding what is happening around digestion is a great way to help curb picky eating habits. Consider teaching your child about their body to better help understand digestion. Having a familiarity with the body can help our minds understand that food is fuel!
Remember: Always ask your family doctor or pediatrician if you have concerns about your child's eating habits. Most of all, remember that problematic eating isn't the result of problematic parenting. Mealtimes can be a place for sparkling conversation...rather than heated debates.
To learn more about your digestive system, join the Loops Crew in Adventure 5: The Digestive System as they travel through Ancient Japan in the Adventure Series: 12 Systems of the Body!