Why does it take a while for children to eat new foods?
In Singapore, nearly half of surveyed parents (including caregivers) perceive their children as picky eaters, and a third of them would consult a doctor about their child’s eating behaviour.
Children may appear more cautious in approaching new people and new experiences. This ‘being wary of the new’ holds true for food as well. Familiar tastes, textures and smells are comfortable and are more readily accepted.
“This may partly be attributed to food neophobia, the rejection of novel or unknown foods, which begins to play a role in children’s diet from six months of age,” says Jasly Koo, Dietitian, from the Nutrition and Dietetics Department at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, a member of the SingHealth group.
The concept of food neophobia overlaps to some extent with the broader concept of fussy eating, which refers to the rejection of both familiar and unfamiliar foods.
Understanding fussy eating (food neophobia)
Levels of fussy eating or food neophobia change with the child’s age, with minimal neophobia at infancy and levels peaking sometime between two and six years.
It is proposed that the peak in neophobia is protective as children start to explore their surroundings outside parental guidance and are at an increased risk of consuming unknown objects, which may be harmful.
Food rejection based on sight
It is proposed that new foods can be rejected based on sight. For example, in the hunter-gatherer days, plant foods posed a significant risk of poisoning. Hence, novel plant foods, for example fruits and vegetables, may incite a larger fear reaction as they do not ‘look right’.
Food rejection based on genetic predisposition
Acceptance of new food can also be affected by genetic predisposition to taste of foods. Children tend to like sweet and salty tastes and dislike bitter and sour tastes. Hence, chocolates and potato chips may be more easily accepted than green vegetables, which often have a tinge of bitterness.
Fussy eating (food neophobia) is not a permanent dislike for new foods and acceptance can be promoted through repeated exposure to or modelling the consumption of the rejected foods.
It is however associated with poorer dietary quality – more neophobic children were found to have lower variety of fruits and vegetables but a greater proportion of daily energy from discretionary foods (Perry 2015).