“Picky Eaters” was a phrase often used to describe my sisters and me. And it was appropriate, because we did have an extremely stubborn tendency to stick only to the foods we knew. Going out to dinner more often than not resulted in all three of us getting the most mundane item on the menu. By the time we were in high school, we had sampled every chicken-parmesan dish at all of the nearby Italian restaurants, but nothing else. We avoided new foods like the plague. We were food neophobic, and we were not alone.
Food neophobia or avoidance of new foods is a phase that typically begins at age two or three and ends at age five. But for some, the fear doesn’t disappear. They grow up unwilling to taste new foods, thus severely limiting their dietary intake. Parents attempt to combat the neophobia with disguises, games and even bribery but to no avail. The unrecognizable food will not pass their children’s lips. And sadly, parents have no one to blame but themselves . . . and maybe their parents, too. A new study suggests that food neophobia is inherited. In a food-behavior assessment of twins between ages eight and 11, researchers found that specific food avoidance was genetically linked. It was more nature than nurture that left the peas on the plate, growing increasingly cold. However, nutritionists were quick to assert that this does not mean new food should not be offered. Children should still have the chance to sample different things. If they don’t, their diet will be detrimentally focused on a select few items, items that are usually not fruits and vegetables.
Children with a higher level of food neophobia statistically eat 35 percent fewer fruits and vegetables than other children but eat the same amount of fatty, sweet and starchy foods. This means that severely neophobic children are lacking vital nutrients in their diet and that their parents are going to have to go above and beyond to compensate. Fortunately, they have a little help. The National Fruit & Vegetable Program is dedicated to promoting the consumption of fruits and vegetables as a gateway to good health. Its Web site, fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov, offers tips, recipes and produce of the month. Right now, it offers even more. In celebration of Fruit and Vegetable Month, the CDC has created a kit, available online, designed to make fruits and vegetables more appealing to children. The kit includes worksheets, recipe cards (for kids and parents) and activity suggestions, such as grocery store scavenger hunts. It has great ideas about how to get your daily five-to-nine with a little variety and a lot of fun. Before you know it, you and your children will be enjoying homemade muesli for breakfast and fufu for dinner, completely unaware that, hours earlier, food neophobia had been keeping your produce drawer shut.
Further Reading: Cooke, Lucy J, Claire MA Haworth and Jane Wardle. “Genetic and Environmental Influences on Children’s Food Neophobia,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. August 2007.