Is your child a picky eater or do they have food neophobia? Dr Frances Maratos, Reader in Emotion Science, and Jayne Trovati, a PhD student researching this area, both at the University of Derby, explain the difference between the two and the psychology behind why your child might not be eating their greens.
Is my child just a picky eater or do they have food neophobia?
Food neophobia is specific to new foods, and literally speaking, a fear of eating novel, unknown foods. Picky eating may involve rejection based on other characteristics of food, such as texture, flavour, colour or combination of ingredients, and relates to foods previously consumed, as well as novel foods. Food neophobia tends to be related to anxiety, whereas picky eating is much more strongly related to environmental factors such as familial mealtime practices and consumption expectations.
Why are some children picky eaters and others aren’t? Is it common to have a child who is fussy with food?
Using parents’ reports of children’s picky fussy eating between the ages of 24 and 65 months, the peak age for reporting symptoms was 38 months, with 3.5% reported as picky eaters at all (four) monitoring points, and 26% never reported as picky eaters. This shows picky fussy eating can be quite common among toddler and pre-schoolers.
Individual differences have been found to play a role in eating behaviour, which may explain why some children are picky eaters and others are not – for example, openness to trying new things and tendency to be anxious. If your child suffers from anxiety they are more likely to be a picky eater. A study in 2007 by psychologists Cook, Haworth and Wardle suggested that food neophobia is highly heritable. In a study of 5,000 8-11 year old twins, they found that if one twin had food neophobia, the chances of the further twin sharing this eating behaviour was around 75%.
Eating behaviour may also differ with each situation. For example, how children eat at home may differ to how they eat when they are at school. The same applies for children eating at restaurants or at parties. Parents may be unaware of these habits. It’s not uncommon to find your child lives up to the expected eating requirements at nursery but doesn’t at home. It may be that your child knows they can get away with certain eating behaviours in one situation, but not in another.
Certain behavioural traits, such as those associated with the need for ‘ordering’ or ‘sameness’, as experienced by children with Autism or OCD, may also influence picky eating or food neophobia., among individuals with subclinical trait behaviours.
Parental practices are also important. Forcing a child to eat can exacerbate food rejection, and modelling by peers and parents may also play a positive or negative role.
Is there a key age when children are most likely to become picky eaters – and do children grow out of it?
Picky fussy eating and food neophobia is believed to begin in toddlerhood, and peak at around five years of age as part of normal development. It is thought to be linked to the development of taste and contamination disgust which occurs between 20 months and six years.
However, as our research shows – it’s not just disgust that may underlie early childhood rejection behaviours, but also what the food looks like.
Indeed, for those children manifesting picky eating and food neophobia into late childhood and beyond, it is likely that sensory processes (taste and sight) are taking precedence over developing cognitive (reasoning) strategies.
Picky eating which does not remit within around two years is more likely to persist into adulthood, compared to transient shorter term pickiness. Research shows that while picky eating is common in pre-schoolers (around 14-50%), this reduces to between 7-27% in later childhood.
In addition, whereas the new onset of symptoms has been estimated at 13% among pre-schoolers, this drops to 3% at the age of six.
Are there influencing factors for children not eating their food?
Exploring food images and textures of real foods with toddlers has been shown to increase consumption of fruit and vegetables. However, research also shows that such educational interventions may provide only short term increase in healthy food consumption among older children.
Top tips for parents on how to tackle picky eating in children
- Ensure fresh fruit is on display at home to promote healthy snacking.
- Don’t let children snack before a main meal. For example, if you give them a snack 30 minutes before a meal then they will be more likely to ‘pick’ or show less interest in the meal time food.
- Try to ensure that meal times are pleasant events, e.g. a time for the family to be together (and eat at a table if possible).
- When possible, serve meals in courses. This doesn’t need to be fancy but could consist of cherry tomatoes, carrots, peppers and/or celery as a ‘starter’. This encourages toddlers and children to eat a wider variety of vegetables.
- Always try to include fruit and vegetables in main meals such as carrots in spaghetti bolognese or sliced fruit with a small amount of custard for dessert.
- Don’t use plates which encourage separation of different food. This encourages the idea of ‘contamination’. Instead, ensure dishes such as spaghetti bolognese, chilli and rice are presented as mixed entities. If you do present food separately, then you will need to slowly start to address this (little by little).
- If your toddler or child dislikes a food, try to ensure that a very small amount is included on their meal plate, but do not force them to eat it. Simply getting them used to the expectation of the food being on their plate is a start.
- Do not worry if your child still refuses to eat particular food. Repeated exposure (without pressure to eat the food) is key. Additionally, most children do tend to grow out of picky fussy eating. What is essential is providing a safe, pleasant meal time experience.
- Read stories about fruits and vegetables with your child to get them familiar with these foods in a safe, relaxed environment.
- Don’t use pressure to encourage eating, as this creates anxiety which can exacerbate picky fussy eating.
- Last, but not least, use modelling behaviour and positive reinforcement to demonstrate eating expectations. Indeed, be consistent with your expectations i.e. don’t expect your child to eat something you will not!
Frances has written a chapter, along with Dr Emma Sharp, in ‘Food Neophobia: Behavioral and Biological Influences’. Their chapter is about understanding picky eating, food neophobia and eating disorders across the life span. She has also recently set-up a free advice page for parents ‘Top Tips not Tantrums’ which can be found at https://www.facebook.com/pg/Frankietopkidstips