Kids are famous for their refusal to eat their greens, to the endless frustration of their parents. However there’s a good reason for this innate fussiness and it even has a name - food neophobia.
The theory of food neophobia has it’s roots in our ancestral history. If we rewind back to our early beginnings we can see that for the most of the time that we’ve been in existence, humans have lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
In those times, babies and very young children would have been carried by their mothers while they sought out and gathered the foods available to them. When the children reached an age when it was no longer practical to be held, they would have played alongside their mothers as they worked. The age that this would have happened coincides with the peak fussy eating age that we see in kids today – about 2-4 years of age.
The theory goes that children who were more hesitant to eat whatever they came across at this young age were the ones more likely to survive and thrive, given the wide variety of poisonous plants that exist in the natural environment. Those who did eat them and ended up getting sick (but not dying) would have had a strong conditioning experience and most likely been very reluctant to put unfamiliar plants in their mouth for a long while afterwards – as anyone who has gotten sick after eating a particular food will know all too well!
We also know that this fussy stage doesn’t last, with children becoming more accepting of different foods as they move past this stage – provided they don’t get stuck there. So what can adults do to help?
See it as a passing stage. It’s helpful to see fussy eating as just a normal developmental stage, in much the same way we view tantrums. Rather than imagining our toddler as an adult kicking and screaming when they don’t get their way, we know that they’ll grow out of it. So instead of seeing food refusal as an indicator that they don’t like that particular food, see it as a passing stage and continue to offer that food regardless of the screwed up face, or if the reaction from your child is too strong, bring it back in a month or two. Remember that it can take up to sixteen tastes of a new food before it is accepted, so be patient.
Lead by example. When kids see the adults around them taking great pleasure in the foods they eat, they are more likely to do the same. Make a conscious choice to show your children that mealtimes are a time for enjoying the nourishing foods you love, sharing stories about the day and for bonding with one another.
These little, daily mealtime moments create the food memories they will take with them into adulthood.
Take away the pressure. Studies have shown that even small amounts of pressure to eat foods can turn children off those foods. So many adults have foods that they can’t eat because they were forced to eat them as a child. Food can too easily become a power struggle; don’t let it. Let them know that their food choices won’t win either your approval or disapproval.
Mix the old with the new. It’s important not to offer alternatives if they don’t like what’s on offer, so a good idea can be to serve a meal that has an accepted food along with an unfamiliar or disliked food. That way, they won’t leave the table hungry, but they will still get the opportunity to get used to new flavours. A good example is this Fennel, Orange and Mint Salad. Most kids love orange, but aren’t so always keen on salad greens. In this salad the silky sweetness of perfectly segmented oranges draws them in and wins them over, as my kitchen garden kids have proven. There have been no leftovers with this one!
What are your childhood mealtime memories? Have they shaped how you feel about food today?
Fennel, Orange & Mint Salad – Serves 4
- 3-4 handfuls of mixed salad greens
- 2 small fennel bulbs
- 2 oranges
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- Handful of fennel fronds
- Small bunch mint
- Small bunch parsley
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
Wash the salad greens and gently spin them in a salad spinner to remove excess water. Place into a large salad bowl.
Segment the oranges using a sharp knife, catching the juices in a small bowl. (You can see how to do it here, although if you’re working with kids, have them rest the orange on a board rather than holding it in their hand). Reserve juice and add the orange to the salad bowl.
Slice the fennel very thinly using the mandolin (always use a hand guard and ask for an adult’s help) or a sharp knife. Place sliced fennel into a colander and rinse under cold water to remove any dirt that may have been caught between the layers. Drain well and add to the salad bowl.
Add the lemon juice and olive oil to the bowl with the reserved orange juice. Season to taste with the salt and pepper.
Set a few fennel fronds aside, then remove stems of the parsley and mint and chop all the herbs roughly. Add to the salad, pour over dressing and use your hands to gently combine. Serve topped with remaining fennel fronds.