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Understanding Neophobia – Are “Picky Eaters” Misunderstood?

March 16, 2011

The following is an archived post

 

How many parents out there think their child is a picky eater?  When I meet people and they ask what I do, as soon as I say “nutritionist,” one of the most common discussions that arises is about the difficulties in getting a particular child to eat healthfully or “normally.”

 

Children can seem funny about food.   But it’s important to keep in mind that for a child, eating is truly a learning experience and is ever-evolving from infancy all the way into adulthood.

 

Babies and children approach new food with caution are said to have neophobia, which means fear of something new.  Although we might not go so far as to say they are truly phobic (a bit extreme), children need to be exposed to new or unfamiliar foods about 10-20 times before they begin to accept it.  There are many theories behind this, one of which being that caution to the unfamiliar is an inherited survival mechanism to ensure food’s safety.

 

Once children become accustomed to the taste and texture of new foods, they generally learn to like it and it becomes part of the group of familiar foods.  Again, learning to eat is part of growth.

 

Food often becomes an issue because of parents or caregivers.  Children need continuous exposure to the food, the support of trusted adults and the need not to be pressured in any way to eat.  Even positive pressure, like a reward, decreases food acceptance.  According to Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, CICW, BCD , renowned author of numerous books about children and feeding,  “children eat poorly when parents pressure and persuade, limit menus to food  that children readily accept and fail to provide regular and reliable opportunities to eat.”

 

This isn’t to say of course that children don’t have their own preferences, tastes and wants and that some aren’t  more selective, shall we say.  I must admit, I was labeled myself as a ‘picky’ or ‘selective’ eater.  I had an aversion to many foods because the idea of them bothered me (meat, for example, once  i found out what it really was).  My mother tells me that at one point I wouldn’t eat bananas because I looked at the seeds and thought they were “dirty.” (I know, I’m strange.)  But because my parents never made a big deal out of it and always offered a variety of healthy foods (modeling healthy eating behavior themselves), encouraging me to try them over time in a benign sort of way, I eventually got bored with my limited diet and grew out of it.

 

Every child is different, of course, but childrens’ skepticism about new foods is completely normal.  Parents and caregivers: keep in mind Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility in feeding. You are responsible for the what, when, and where of feeding; children are responsible for the how much and whether of eating.  Basically, parents are responsible for what food they serve and when and where they serve it; children are responsible for how much of that food they eat and whether they eat at all.  It may be hard to follow this in practice, but it tends to produce competent and healthy eaters.

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