Understanding the Finicky Eater

April 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

I spent last Saturday afternoon in Prospect Park with married friends and their four-year daughter, Danae.  She is a charmingly precocious child, who impressed me with her encyclopedic knowledge of local fauna, as we strolled through the blossoming park.  Eventually the four of us found a clearing, threw down an old comforter, and got ready to eat our picnic lunch.  We had brought along a basket filled with avocado and cheese sandwiches on soft whole wheat bread, and a pasta salad featuring fresh herbs, feta cheese and an assortment of delicious marinating vegetables.  I had also brought along a large bag of nacho cheese Doritos, which proved to be supremely distracting for little Danae.  The previously sanguine and polite youngster was replaced by a shrieking, flailing bundle of thwarted desire, as her demands for the irresistible orange chips were denied.  My friend Jane sheepishly admitted that getting her daughter to eat healthy meals had been an ongoing problem.  Although my friends were conscientious eaters themselves, like most people they indulged in the odd donut or a plate of syrupy deep fried General Tso’s chicken.  Once their daughter had sampled from the dark side, there was no going back.

With sugar being an innately preferred taste, and salt a quickly acquired taste preference, it makes sense that children would gravitate heavily towards foods containing both.  I wondered if these were these were the only driving factors in food preference and selection.   

First off, I discovered what many of you already know, that infants are indiscriminate eaters, who will put just about anything into their mouths, whereas toddlers display neophobia, or the fear of new foods.  Food neophobia rises rapidly at age two, and dwindles gradually with time.  Researchers refer to the “omnivores dilemma” to explain the phenomenon of neophobia, which manifests as extreme pickiness.  As omnivore creatures we are surrounded by a multitude of choices in food selection.  In order to ascertain what is edible and safe, it makes sense to tread with caution when experimenting with new foods.  Repeated exposure over time with no ill effects increases acceptability of a new food.  Accordingly, under the age of four, familiarity with a food is the greatest predictor of whether or not the child likes a food, whereas after the age of four, sweetness is the greatest predictor of whether or not a child likes a food (Birch, 1979). 

Eating is also socially facilitated early on, meaning that a child learns what to eat through social cues provided by the child’s environment (meaning other people such as caretakers and peers).  Food offered and endorsed by a smiling speaker of an infants native language is sampled more regularly than food offered by a scowling speaker of a foreign language (Shutts, kinzler, McKee & Spelke 2009).  Children have also been shown to prefer eating an unfamiliar food if it is offered by an adult who is also eating the food-as opposed to a food that is merely being offered (Harper & Sanders, 1975).  Another study (Addessi, Galloway, Visalberghi & Birch, 2005) showed that kids are more likely to eat a new food if others are eating the same food (as opposed to a different food)-again demonstrating that young children use social context to make decisions about what foods they will eat.  With television heavily endorsing certain foods, and showing happy children partaking in their products, it is understandable that young children would be swayed by such ubiquitous grooming of their palates.

Taken together these studies illustrate that early food selection and preferences are formed by the child’s repeated exposure to different foods and through social facilitation.  As parents, caretakers and educators, responsibility lies on us to gently coax kids outside their comfort zones and introduce a wide variety of healthy foods to their diet.  This may also mean modeling good eating behavior on a regular basis-so grab a bowl of steamed bean sprouts and dig in!

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