Did you know – you probably do – that telling your child “eat x then you can eat y” will increase their dislike for x? And if you say “if you are good you can eat y” you will increase their liking for y? So, if we were being sensible, we would tell our children “If you are good you can have a floret of cauliflower” and “eat all your potatoes and then you can have some cabbage”. But we don’t, do we? Or at least I don’t. Not even now, when at 2 years old I reckon X has such negligible peer pressure that he may even buy into the con.

Our attitudes to feeding our kids is absolutely crucial to how they react to food. Yet an article in the Psychologist (the British Psychological Society’s monthly publication) states that research shows that kids’ attitudes to food can be influenced by their parents, peers, teachers and…fictional cartoon heroes. Go on. Eat your broccoli. Bob the Builder eats his…..
But if you want to increase the child’s liking for something and increase how much they eat it praise and stickers is, apparently the way to go (Horne et al. 2004).

Advice to use praise and rewards always has me checking the Unconditional Parenting resources, who state that these things are unhelpful on many levels, including that we are telling our children how to feel, making them “praise junkies” who will only continue to do the thing they are praised for as long as the praise is forthcoming. The proponents of Unconditional Parenting suggest that we back off, just name what the child has done “you ate broccoli!” and ask them more how they feel rather than tell them how they have made us feel. I praise X. A lot. I can’t help it. But I do see this point of view and try and measure any suggestion of rewards and praise with these opinions. There is a lot of information on the internet on Unconditional Parenting if you are interested. And some good books too.

The next finding the Psychologist article mentions is how repeated exposure to food (requiring repeated tastings) enhances the liking for that food. But it may take up to 15 taste exposure to enhance the liking of a food. This is annoying as it can be hard to persuade a baby or toddler to “just try it once” ! The rejection of new foods is quite common in 4 year olds. Between 1 and 2 years of age new foods are more frequently tried, but by age 4 (or, in some research 2 years old) (Cook et al., 2003) this willingness to try novel foods is at its lowest level and is referred to as neophobia (Cashden, 1994). Giving it a funky name like this does not make it a clinical problem though. There is a sensible reaction behind the dislike of new foods, primarily the fear of being poisoned. These kids are becoming very independent at this age, and it is a good thing that they don’t just stuff everything into their mouths to eat.

Being a “picky eater” is generally more commonly seen in boys and does more commonly center around vegetables (whereas in adult food neophobics it is more likely to be animal foodstuffs that are rejected). We don’t help our youngsters (especially the very little ones) if we do not let them touch the food they are about to eat and generally get a sense of it before it goes in the mouth. For older children, involving them in the preparation of food can help overcome the reluctance to try new things. Food neophobia is best overcome with regular repeated exposure to the rejected food – particularly fruit, vegetables, eggs and meat (Cook et al. 2003).

However, it is important not to increase tension at the table. The research (by Moore et al., 2007 and Moore, Tapper & Murphy, 2010a) discussed in the Psychologist article focused on mothers’ reports of their 3-5 year olds eating. Rewards and retribution were used by many mothers, despite this being found in research to have negative consequences. Not one of the mothers seemed to know that food neophobia is common in this age group and none mentioned their child liking a food as being a goal for eating. That is really sad!

A clever woman, and experienced mother, observed in a group I was at recently that we don’t treat our friends, or ourselves, as we treat our children. We don’t force ourselves or our friends to clear our plates, and we don’t refuse to serve dessert to those who do not wish to eat all their main course. This is true, and what’s more, we try and give our friends food we know they will like, and don’t hover over them while they eat (in fact we also don’t get on with the washing/cleaning/washing up while they eat, but do tend to join them at the table). There is a lot to be said for using this approach with our kids (while ensuring we keep trying new foods with them, based on the repeated exposure theory to help with any reluctance to try novel tastes).

We also trust our friends to control their own diet. We don’t do this with our kids, even though it is believed that, when left to their own devices (and given a range of healthy options), children do tend to make choices that equate to a heathy diet – it just may only be healthy if you view it over a month, rather than daily (Gonzales, 2005). X certainly goes through days of only seeming to eat protein, or carbs, or peas…. Birch and Fisher (1995) also found that almost all children will self-regulate what they eat to ensure the appropriate amount of nutrients that they need to grow and develop. So basically, other words, your toddler will eat what is needed to support his or her growth.

Finally, a word on portion sizes. I have only just realised that I am constantly forgetting what a reasonable portion for X is. A portion of food for a toddler is actually very small (1/2 a banana, 1-2 tbsp peas/chopped veg, 2 tbsp cereal, 1/4-1/2 slice of bread, 1/2 egg, 1 tbsp peanut butter, 1 oz meat).

Some of the following approaches may help get through meal times with less stress:

  1. Try not to go down the “if you eat [your peas] you can have [ice cream]. Instead try praise (or just commenting) when they do eat the food you are hoping that the will eat.
  2. Try not to use food as a reward!
  3. Keep trying to introduce new foods, remembering that it is likely to take a LOT of presentations before your little one tastes or seems to enjoy the food.
  4. Involve your child in preparing their meal. Make it fun!
  5. Try and relax at mealtimes. Making it a battle will only make it worse.
  6. Make mealtimes a family occasion. Don’t leave your child to eat alone. Try and sit together at a table.
  7. Small portions! Remember they only have little tummies, and lots of food on a plate can be very overwhelming. X eats less the more I give him.
  8. Keep offering healthy snacks (stopping snacks is unlikely to make them eat more at mealtimes) and try to offer a couple of choices every snack time. You are encouraging independence, giving some control and helping your child develop their own tastes.
  9. It probably wouldn’t hurt to claim that your child’s favourite toy/character/cartoon hero likes the food you are presenting….
  10. Ice cream isn’t just for rewards! Making a food “banned” or “forbidden” or only for special occasions increases the desire for that food. Trust your child to know what food they want and need (from offered healthy choices) and, like you, let them occasionally have ice cream as part of a healthy balanced diet.

Recommended Reading
González, C. My child won’t eat.
Sears, W., & Sears, M. (1999). The family nutrition book. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, & Company.
Some tips on feeding “picky eaters” from Dr Sears

Birch, L.L., & Fisher, J.A. (1995). Appetite and eating behavior in children. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 42, 931-953.
Cashdan, E. (1994). A sensitive period for learning about food. Human Nature, 5, 279–291.
Cook, L., Wardle, J., & Gibson, E.L. 2003. Relationship between parental report of food neophobia and everyday food consumption in 2–6-year-old children. Appetite. 41(205-206)
González, C. 2005. My child won’t eat. La Leche League.
Horne, P.J., Tapper, K., Lowe, C.F. et al. (2004). Increasing children’s fruit and vegetable consumption. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 58(12), 1649–1660.
Moore, S.N. 2012. Feeding time. The Psychologist.25(1)

Published by Katie Taylor

I am a working mom of two sons, living in London. I take a lot of pride in how I chose to raise my sons. I am strong advocate of good nutrition and chose to feed my family an organic, whole foods diet.

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