Often adults enthusiastically introduce a new food, just to have a child turn up their nose at it. Perhaps the adult will offer it a second time. But if a child refuses to eat an unfamiliar food the third time, most adults will quit and assume they just don’t like it and won’t eat it. The truth is, that after three tries, the process of building a preference or like for a new food is just beginning! Many children (from infants to teenagers) are reluctant to try new foods. It’s a phenomenon called neophobia and literally means a fear of new foods. I know firsthand about this as I struggled miserably with it as a child and some of it has carried over to my adult life. New foods, even as an adult, bring on a feeling of anxiety as well as embarrassment if I am in a public place or at someone’s home. Studies tell us that food preferences can be developed and the earlier children experience this the better. Under the right circumstances, negative initial responses to new foods can be shifted to positive ones. The key is to give children repeated opportunities to touch, smell and sample the new food. Food preferences develop slowly with repeated exposures, like wading slowly into the water until you feel comfortable with it.
When you first expose a child to a new food, it must be without any pressure or expectations. Being forced to taste and eat the new food is a recipe for failure. First exposures can be called “no thank you” servings with no expectation to eat, but to touch, taste, smell and talk about it. Using the fingers as well as the tongue to touch and feel is important. Other levels of exposure to a new food will also lead to success. Shopping for the new food with your child can create a feeling of participation in it. Preparation of the new food is another level of exposure that can lead to acceptance. Washing, prepping, serving all contribute to acceptance as well. Vegetables and meats are the most likely foods that require many exposures to accept. They also are two food groups that have very high nutritional value.
Getting children involved in gardening and growing some of the vegetables is one of the best ways to build acceptance. Very small gardens, decks with pots or small planters can be used to grow peas, tomatoes, green beans, peppers, carrots and broccoli. Planting the seeds, watering the plants and watching the development and growth is fascinating for children. When they can finally harvest the vegetable, the excitement will be a strong motivator to taste and eat it! Helping to prepare meat recipes, using sauces for dipping, cutting or making small bite-sized servings will help children to accept some of the proteins in their diet. Using chicken wing drumettes instead of a big piece of chicken is fun for children. Making little meatballs instead of meatloaf is also more appealing! You can sing the “On Top of Spaghetti” song as you make them! It always important that along with the new food, familiar foods are served so that sufficient nutrition is consumed.