Does your kid only eat white food, or scream at the prospect of vegetables? It’s true that grocery shopping is easier when you only have to shop on two aisles. Someday your child may broaden their diet and making lunch will be more complicated, so here are three easy steps to ensure your child stays choosy:
Step 1: Offer the same foods every day
From 12-24 months of age is the critical window when kids are most open to new tastes. Give them the same foods everyday, like pasta, and bananas and they will learn to stick to those foods. It will only take a few tries at introducing a new food in order for a child to like them at this stage. After age 2, it can take 10 offers or more for a kid to accept a new food. The technical term for this is ‘food neophobia’. Being cautious about new foods is hard-wired into our brains; it served a survival purpose. Once you’re old enough to wander around and forage for food alone but still too inexperienced to know what’s safe, you are less likely to accidentally poison yourself. By age 3-4 you’ll have to offer a food up to 15 times for it to be accepted into a child’s diet.
Step 2: Lead by (bad) example
Fetuses develop their taste buds by tasting the amniotic fluid. The flavor changes according to what mom has eaten*. Breast milk also changes flavor between feedings depending on what was for lunch. Formula, on the other hand, tastes exactly the same. So if you want your child to limit their tastes, give exclusively formula. It’s like dog food for people!
It’s easy to control what your baby tastes when you are pregnant. Once they are a year old, it is more challenging. You can reinforce avoidance of offensive foods by avoiding the food altogether. But if you see the food be sure to say “Ick, Salmon! I don’t like fish.” You’re guaranteed they are never going to like it either. There is good evidence this works, mothers and their children statistically dislike the same foods, and studies have shown this strongly correlates to mothers specifically not introducing foods to their kids that they don’t like.
* Lots of fun research on this: my fave example is the newborns that liked anise (yuck!) because their mothers ingested it during pregnancy. But research on babies’ tastes has also shown that if mom drinks carrot juice during pregnancy her baby will prefer carrot-flavored cereal later.
Step 3: Bribe them with cookies
Be sure to say things like “if you finish your tofu, you can have a cookie!” That way your child will know that cookies are good and tofu is bad. If you bribe them with something other than food, like a sticker or hug, they will learn that eating new foods is associated with a positive outcome, but they won’t learn that they are supposed to dislike the food you are offering. Alternatively, you can offer a penalty, like “no ice cream if you don’t eat your beans.” Or pressure them to sit at the table until they finish, that way they are sure to associate food with stress and punishment.
On the other hand, if you would prefer for your child to eat a healthy, varied diet, ignore the advice above. Offer your kids a variety of foods, especially vegetables and proteins, and offer them up to 15 times before giving up. Initial rejection of a food is not the same as dislike; they just need to get over their initial food “neophobia”. Serve new foods with foods you know they already like. And you’re gonna have to act like a fool. Ooh and ahh and get excited about foods you want them to eat, even the ones you don’t like. “Ooh, green trees, I looooove broccoli, yum, try some!” Also, the way food looks does matter. A really fun study showed that Super-hero shaped food makes it more palatable to a toddler.
Toddlers’ food preferences. The impact of novel food exposure, maternal preferences and food neophobia. Howard A, Mallan KM, Byrne R, et al.Appetite. 2012 Dec;59(3):818-25.
Prenatal and Postnatal Flavor Learning by Human Infants. Mennella JA, Jagnow CP, Beauchamp GK. 2001. Pediatrics. 107(6):E88.
Influence of licensed characters on children’s taste and snack preferences. Pediatrics. 2010 Jul;126(1):88-93.