Updated: Sep 13
Picky eating can limit the variety and quality of a child’s diet. In this article, we discuss why some children might be picky eaters and give two strategies to overcome it.
It can be difficult to get kids to eat healthy foods, and this problem is even greater for parents of picky eaters. Picky eating—or food neophobia, as it is called in the scientific literature—is when an individual has a negative attitude towards unfamiliar or novel foods. As such, picky eaters are hesitant to eat such foods. While this trait is thought to have been a survival mechanism throughout evolution—preventing hunter-gatherers from eating toxic or lethal (unfamiliar) foods—as with most biological adaptations that were beneficial to us in the past, food neophobia is a disadvantage to us in our modern lives (1).
The Problem with Picky Eating
The main issue with food neophobia is that it limits the diversity and quality of the diet. Evidence consistently shows that kids and adolescents with high levels of food neophobia eat less fruits and vegetables and have less diet variety than their less food neophobic counterparts (1). Indeed, this is not just an issue for kids: a recent analysis in Irish adults reported that higher food neophobia scores were associated with less diet variety, including less fruit and vegetable variety (2). Considering that food neophobia does not seem to fade naturally with age (1), addressing it early is important to prevent it carrying it into adulthood.
Strategies to Reduce Picky Eating
The main way to reduce food neophobia is to increase the familiarity of undesirable foods. This makes sense, as food neophobia represents a negative attitude towards unfamiliar foods. Therefore, if we improve the familiarity of such foods, we can potentially reduce food neophobia. Of course, the major barrier to increasing familiarity to the foods is the food neophobia itself; however, there are two easy ways this can be done.
Repeatedly exposing your kids to the foods they don’t like, such as vegetables, is a strategy to improve their familiarity with it, improve their intake of it, and ultimately reduce their food neophobia. In a study where parents gave their children a daily taste of a previously disliked vegetable for two weeks in a row, the children significantly increased their intake of this vegetable—as well as how much they liked it (3). Because children are born with a preference for sweet tastes, and with a dislike for bitter tastes, it takes some time for their taste buds to adapt to and enjoy the bitter taste of foods like vegetables (4). Repeated exposure can help to achieve this.
Get Kids Cooking
Another way to increase familiarity is to get kids involved in making food. In a study of 8–9-year old Spanish kids, three one-hour cooking workshops delivered in the school canteen over three consecutive weeks resulted in a significant reduction in food neophobia and an increase in spinach and broccoli intake (5). Interestingly, the kids that received nutrition education instead did not quite experience the same results. What’s more, cooking with your kids has the added benefit of teaching them an important life skill and can also be a fun family activity.
Picky eating is something all parents will experience, so knowing how to tackle it is important. If you’re a parent reading this, try these strategies at home and see how you get on. Also, be sure to check out our previous article, where we discussed how a longer family meal time may improve childrens' diets.
If you’re interested in becoming a better footballer, or if your child is, book in to our supplemental football coaching services by reaching out to our team of expert coaches at [email protected].
Thanks for reading and have a great bank holiday weekend!
Patrick Elliott, BSc, MPH
Health and Nutrition Science Communication Officer at Training121
Health Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educational purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional advice. For health advice, speak to a physician or other qualified health-care professional, and for nutrition advice, speak to a qualified nutrition professional (e.g., registered dietitian). The use of information on this site is solely at your own risk.
(1) Karaağaç Y, Bellikci-Koyu E. A narrative review on food neophobia throughout the lifespan: relationships with dietary behaviours and interventions to reduce it. Br J Nutr. 2023;130(5):793–826. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36394363/
(2) Hazley D, McCarthy SN, Stack M, et al. Food neophobia and its relationship with dietary variety and quality in Irish adults: Findings from a national cross-sectional study. Appetite. 2022;169:105859. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666321007662
(3) Wardle J, Cooke LJ, Gibson EL, Sapochnik M, Sheiham A, Lawson M. Increasing children's acceptance of vegetables; a randomized trial of parent-led exposure. Appetite. 2003;40(2):155–62. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666302001356?via%3Dihub
(4) Forestell CA. Flavor Perception and Preference Development in Human Infants. Ann Nutr Metab. 2017;70 Suppl 3:17–25. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28903110/
(5) Maiz E, Urkia-Susin I, Urdaneta E, Allirot X. Child Involvement in Choosing a Recipe, Purchasing Ingredients, and Cooking at School Increases Willingness to Try New Foods and Reduces Food Neophobia. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2021;53(4):279–89. Available at: https://www.jneb.org/article/S1499-4046(21)00008-7/fulltext
Food neophobia: The avoidance of unfamiliar or novel foods or the hesitance to ingest new foods. From an evolutionary point of view, food neophobia is considered a survival mechanism, preventing hunter-gatherers from eating potentially toxic or lethal foods as a result of their unfamiliarity. However, in modern times, food neophobia is often a disadvantage as it limits the diversity and quality of the diet.