Perhaps you have a picky eater at home. Maybe she takes after mom or dad, or maybe this is a quality uniquely her own. Whatever the case, it’s important to recognize that we can change our perception around this. Being particular about foods is indeed a feature and not a flaw.
Around the time children become comfortable with walking, about 15 months or so, an innate evolutionary tool kicks in to help keep these small, but mobile, young beings safe. Neophobia, or fear of the new or unknown, is a stage in which children are naturally resistant to new things. When humans and their predecessors lived in caves, or similar rudimentary dwellings, neophobia played a vital role in naturally guiding children away from potentially dangerous situations, and back to the arms of a familiar family member. In a time when wild animals and environmental threats were more pressing, it’s easy to see why children would benefit from an inner compass to guide them to safety.
But neophobia extends to food as well. You may see an increase in food aversion up until age 3, remaining steady until about age 9. Again, this is the body’s way of attempting to keep young children safe. Sweet and salty foods are almost universally appealing across all cultures, and signify beneficial mineral and caloric content to the body. Therefore it’s probably not difficult to get your children to eat most carbohydrates, including dessert. When we veer away into other flavors, however, that is when we often begin to see resistance.
Bitter flavors, common in many greens and other types of vegetables, can signal to the body the potential for toxicity. Sour or fermented notes may mimic the flavor profile of spoiled food, consuming which could lead to an upset stomach or possible infection. Children’s bodies are highly sensitive, and take these signs very seriously. “Picky eating”, then, may not simply be a case of general fussiness, but can include deep biological messaging.
Thankfully there are still ways to introduce healthy foods into your child’s diet. The most beneficial tactic is doing your best to include fruits and vegetables before they begin to walk. When they’re small childrens’ bodies are more receptive to a variety of flavors, and they are more likely to continue to eat those foods as they grow.
If you’re hoping to start including veggies at a later age, one of the most helpful tools is observation. Even when they’re small, children watch what their parents and older siblings do. They want to mimic their elders. Showing them that healthy foods are something to enjoy, and not be afraid of, creates a big impression.
When they’re slightly older, inviting children to help prepare food also dramatically increases their openness to eating it. Even small children can help pick out veggies, or stir things together in a bowl. Taking part in something gives them a sense of pride, and they look forward to tasting their accomplishment.