Trying to encourage healthy eating in a child who doesn’t want to eat healthy foods, can be one of the most frustrating aspects of parenthood. After spending time buying and lovingly preparing a meal that your child looks at with distaste and then gives you a look that says “what are you doing to me?” can be disheartening and may make you feel like giving up.
What you are up against is not just your child’s preference and attitude but nature itself. A child refusing to eat something is not always fussy eating it can be about self-preservation.
Food Neo phobia is not an eating disorder, it’s not even ‘fussy eating’ it is a natural inclination to avoid a food that you are unfamiliar with and some children are more neo phobic than others. It is thought to be an inherited trait, or it can be a trait influenced by parents and those around them.
Millions of years ago humans used food neo phobia as self-preservation, to avoid eating poisonous foods especially the children. As a food became familiar then they would feel more comfortable to eat it. Some healthy foods like greens can have a bitter taste and and might need to be prepared and presented in a way that makes it more agreeable to a child’s taste buds. Like using butter, spices and adding the vegetables to other foods rather than giving it to them plain. Teaching them why they should eat the foods is so important because otherwise it is hard to convince them to make the effort to eat something that they don’t think tastes as nice as carbohydrates.
Young children are heavily influenced by parental choices, if they can see their parents and those around them eating the food it is much more likely they will eat it. Children are also affected by feeling unwell and can associate a food if they had eaten it with making them unwell.
In the same way that they can be influenced to eat junk foods or foods that are not good form them. In some studies, where children with a more food neo phobic approach have been given a variety of food choices, there was a strong result for then choosing to eat carbohydrate foods. It is these children that tend to miss out on the highly nutritious choice of vegetables and protein, and why it is important to find ways to encourage them to eat healthy foods. By rewarding the children for trying the foods with praise or a sticker, and repeating this until that food becomes familiar this should overcome the fear of trying that food and even go on to encourage them to try more foods.
Rather than forcing a child to eat certain foods, or nagging them it is far better to do the following:
- Eat healthy foods yourself
- Introduce new foods regularly and at an early age
- Reward with stickers/certificates – not with treats
As well as the above if you can educate your child by taking them shopping to super markets and farmers markets, even farms where the foods are grown and reading books on the subject. Teach them to cook, or at least show them what you are doing – getting them to participate in the cooking process makes it more likely they will eat the foods you want them to. Get them planting and watching a food grow– even if it’s just in pots, anything from herbs to carrots.
Refs: 1). Predictors and consequences of food neophobia and pickiness in young girls. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 68, 131-136 (January 2014) | doi:10.1038/ejcn.2013.239 2). Food neophobia and mealtime food consumption in 4–5 year old children. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2006, 3:14 doi:10.1186/1479-5868-3-14