If you find yourself challenged by the daily grind of balancing healthy food choices with picky palates you’re not alone. An estimated 40% of households claim to have at least 1 ‘picky eater’ in their midst. Which begs the question – is picky eating hereditary or habit? It appears it be both. Some estimates claim 78% of picky eating is due to heritable or developmental characteristics – how the taste buds and smell centers of the brain perceive flavour and how a child’s taste is designed to mature with time. The remaining 22% of picky palates are due to environmental influences that are completely modifiable with experience and exposure. Babies are born ready to accept sweet but reject bitter flavours. This is adaptive as breast milk is naturally sweet and sweet foods in early childhood represent easily accessible calories for growth. The mild bitterness in green vegetables is another story. Many toxic compounds have a bitter flavour so children’s taste-buds are naturally more sensitive to this taste. There is a subset of individuals known as ‘super-tasters’ who are extraordinarily sensitive to bitterness. Even as adults they never develop a taste for green vegetables. If you’re a super-taster you’ll also stay clear of other bitter foods such as coffee, tea, beer or dark chocolate.
The good news: our genes are constantly being modified by experience. Yes, it appears we can ‘acquire a taste’ for foods which gives us an element of choice in what we eat. Studies have shown even ‘super-tasters’ can learn to like broccoli by talking themselves into it and by taking the edge off its bitter taste with other flavour.
So how do we ‘acquire a taste’ for foods? And how do we encourage children to develop a taste for new foods and flavours?
Research suggests that the more exposure we have to a food the more we like it. Children like what they know and they eat what they like. One study showed school-aged children tasted sweet red peppers 8 times before they developed a taste for it. In another study it took an average of 10 presentations of a new food before children ate it willingly. Similar studies have shown that children warm up to new foods faster when they see others (particularly parents, friends and siblings) enjoying them.
Other research illustrates it’s never too early to start with increasing a child’s flavour experience! Even in the womb we experience flavours transmitted from our mother’s diets. Infants breast-fed for more than 6 months are statistically less likely to be picky eaters. The current line of thinking – children learn to prefer flavours associated with fruits, vegetables and spices by experiencing these flavours first in mother’s milk. This highlights the importance of a varied diet for women during pregnancy and beyond.
Realize children go through developmental phases with their sense of taste, smell and yes, personality. In one study, parents of picky eaters cited personality traits that are common among them. These words include ‘stubborn’, ‘moody’, ‘nervous’ and ‘easily distracted’. Around the age of 2, picky eating becomes a frustrating but normal stage of development. At this age food rejections can be a sign of exerting independence, testing limits and imposing control. Rest assured that even though your youngster may not be eating their vegetables they’re watching you eat yours! Even before they are able to talk, young children are amazingly aware of the social rules and expectations surrounding food. Study after study concludes the most powerful influence on a child’s food choices is watching and eventually mimicking what their parents and caregivers eat.
Parenting nutrition experts offer some recommendations:
- Offer a variety of foods so children can experiment with new tastes and textures. A bite or a taste is a good first step.
- Set limits and boundaries at mealtime which convey your belief system and stay consistent.
- Be creative. Pair unfamiliar foods with familiar tastes. Salt, for example, over-rides the mild bitterness of green vegetables.
- Be aware of timing. Seems common sense but it’s also proven in the literature that children will be less selective in their food choices when they’re hungry.
- Encourage children to expand their comfort zone with food but don’t turn the dinner table into a war zone. As children grow older, a distinct fear of trying new foods can be a symptom of a deeper-seated anxiety issue. Food rejection can also be a symptom of a digestive issue – eating the food becomes associated with not feeling well. In this case a child’s growth and development may be affected. In this case it’s wise to seek help from a ND or mental health professional.
Children will live through developmental phases which affect their food choices but with patience, consistency and creativity they will emerge without nutritional deficits. A ‘picky eater’ in childhood does not necessarily translate into a ‘picky eater ‘in adulthood. It appears that adults have more choice in the matter and that both children and adults alike can develop a taste for foods and flavours of all kinds and enjoy them with gusto and grace!