The Science Behind Picky Eaters

We bet you know someone who is a full-fledged picky eater. Maybe your little one refuses to eat anything but pancakes and plain pasta, or your best friend can’t stand anything green.

            There are varying degrees of adventurous eaters - some people chow down on anything put in front of them. Others are cautious but try things anyway, and some simply can and will not eat something they don’t know or like.

            Usually the pickiest of eaters are young children, and many of these fussy eaters grow out of their tendencies and later in life enjoy unique and delicious foods usually reserved for the more mature palate, like fermented, pickled, or salted and brined foods, that are found far from the sugary cereal aisle of a grocery store. But some stay safe and picky eaters for life. Ever wonder why that is?

            If you’ve got kids going through their “No!” phase, or if you are childless and just curious about what affects someone’s personal tastes, we’ve done a bit of research on the phenomenon of picky eating, particularly during childhood and adolescence. And we found out that though Individual differences like personality and characteristics do have an effect on eating habits and food preferences or dislikes, there are certain ways to limit pickiness and raise your kids to be more adventurous, healthy, and diverse with their food choices.

            If you want to get scientific, this phenomenon has a name: food neophobia, or the fear of new foods. Ample research has been done on the existence of food neophobia and the factors and social influences that effect picky eating. Various factors can impact a person’s specific tastes, such as social environment, cultural norms, cognitive ability, and the eating habits and parenting styles of parents and relatives, just to name a few. An article written by Terence M. Dovey, Paul A. Staples, E. Leigh Gibson, and Jason C.G. Halford explains that food neophobia (rejection of unknown and new foods) and picky/fussy eating (the rejection of foods both known and unknown) are two closely tied ideas. They explain that these qualities, though effected by personality and individual behaviours, are mostly age-dependent and, if given the proper treatment while young, children can grow out of these traits.

            People who are food neophobic typically reject new foods before even tasting them. This rejection comes from our natural instincts as omnivores. We are hardwired to be cautious of foods that don’t “look” or smell right, such as bitter fruits or green vegetables, because as animals, we are instinctively cautious of unknown plants and berries as they might be poisonous and hazardous to our health. To help override this instinct, new food should be presented positively, so the child can begin to trust it as harmless. Try to highlight the fun and joy of eating and preparing food.

            As well, this article deduces that a child will be more willing to try a new food if the people around them are also eating it. If the whole family partakes in broccoli and okra, your little one will be more likely to try it out.

            A child’s exposure to new and different flavours starts young - even as young as the uterus. The mother’s diet during pregnancy and while breastfeeding affects a child’s taste-buds as well. Particular tastes like fermented and pickled dishes are introduced in other cultures even before neophobia naturally kicks in (which is from around age twi to age six). Kimchi at breakfast or pickled fish and boiled eggs for dinner may sound odd to the North American palate, but only because North American culture prescribes certain types of food for certain times of the day. If you raise your child on varied, different ingredients and flavours, they will be less averse to trying new foods later in life, and will be able to decipher whether they dislike something only due to cultural norms, or because of their own personal taste-buds.

            There you have it - a very brief introduction to the world of neophobia. If you’re still interested in where children get their tastes from, check out this article from the NY Times. We’ve used Hannah Whitaker’s photographs, of children from around the world eating their typical breakfasts. Ever wonder what breakfast looks like around the world?