The Psychology Behind Fussy Eating

Fussy EatingThe psychology of how taste preferences develop over a lifetime is a fascinating topic.  And understanding some of the key factors that influence food likes and dislikes can be particularly useful if you’re dealing with a fussy eater.  Worrying about what children eat is perhaps one of the most agonised-over subjects that new parents share.  In this short article we take a look at where taste preferences come from and what you can do to nurture a taste for healthy foods such as fish from a young age.

Food taste preferences develop very early, way before birth.  First taste buds appear at just 8 weeks gestation and flavours from the maternal diet filter quickly into the amniotic fluid, so a baby experiences cultural taste patterns long before there is any direct contact with actual food.  For newborns, the taste sense is the most important and most developed of all senses, so breast milk (the taste of which is directly influenced by mum’s diet) or formula alternatives, have a significant influence on a child’s developing tastes too.  It is 6 months before most babies will come into contact with any food other than milk, yet likes and dislikes are already becoming firmly established. 

The great nature vs nurture debate extends into tastes too.  It’s often a surprise to learn that as well as learned and environmental influences, preferences actually have a strong innate component.  We are all born with a natural liking for sweet, salty and savoury tastes, whilst bitter and sour substances are more often rejected.

From an evolutionary perspective, the foods that we are naturally drawn towards confer an obvious survival advantage.  Sweet tastes indicate a source of energy (carbohydrates) that is safe to eat, a salty taste may hint at the presence of minerals and savoury often indicates a good animal protein source.  In contrast, a bitter taste may warn against toxic or poisonous foods whilst acidic or sour may signal that a food is spoiled or past its best.  Perhaps the typical toddler aversion to bitter tasting dark leafy greens is actually a useful survival instinct against being poisoned! 

These innate tastes are not set in stone though and can be modified by pre and post-natal experiences.  Experiences both in the womb, after birth, throughout childhood and beyond all combine to form our lifelong taste preferences. 

Consistent intake and repeated exposure are crucial for helping a child to learn to enjoy new foods.  ‘Neophobia’ is the term used to describe a natural fear of anything new.  It is much safer to stick to foods that have been tried and enjoyed previously, so for a child (or an adult), taking the first step with something new is often a scary prospect.  You may need to offer a new food many times, and without pressure or bribery, before your child feels safe to give it a try.  What’s good to know though is that once a new flavour is accepted, this can quickly influence the preference for and acceptance of similar new flavours or foods.       With persistence, it is completely possible to learn to like foods we are naturally cautious of such as broccoli and dark leafy greens and food that we might just not be keen on like fish.

Positive or negative associations can have a significant influence on taste preferences too.  Children often enjoy foods that have been eaten in pleasant situations (cake at a birthday party) and may dislike foods that are linked to a negative experience (new vegetables at an anxious first school dinner).  For example, cancer patients often remain averse to foods consumed during chemotherapy due to a negative association with nausea and vomiting.

Whilst some associations are beyond control, you can consciously help your child to develop some positive associations with healthy foods.  Foods such as vegetables and fish are often consumed under pressure (finish your food or no dessert), which further strengthens the negative association and increases the appeal of sweet, tasty dishes that are eaten without pressure.  By offering new foods repeatedly, without pressure and during happy social occasions, you can help to strengthen positive associations with healthy foods.

It’s worth bearing in mind too that children (and adults) quickly become bored of eating the same thing.  In food science terms this is known as ‘sensory specific satiety’ and is precisely why people tend to eat more food from a buffet style meal, simply because there is so much variety on offer.  You can help your child to enjoy mealtimes more by including lots of different tastes and textures on their plate, or even serving a meal ‘buffet style’ in large dishes on the table so they can help themselves.  This helps to avoid them getting bored before they are full.

Helping your child to build positive associations with healthy food from a young age is an important (and often challenging) job for any parent.  Many children will go through tricky phases with their eating habits too, but it is important to be patient and consistent, and it will often come right in the end.  Above all be kind on yourself too, as no-one sails through the process perfectly!

Top tips to help nurture a taste for healthy food (and make food like fish more appealing!)
 • No pressure - Offer new foods little and often, and without any pressure for your child to try them, especially with bitter and sour tastes that they may be naturally averse to.

 • Familiar is safe - Introduce new foods by building on tastes your child already likes.  For example, if your child already enjoys carrots, try adding a small amount of chopped swede into the mix.
 • Thoughtful presentation makes for a more enjoyable meal - Make funny faces on your child’s plate. Experiment with different tastes, textures and colours to make mealtimes a feast for all the senses
 • Pay attention to the meal setting - Build positive happy associations with healthy foodsInvite friends round for tea and eat together as a family.  Organise happy, social occasions with your children where good healthy food is a focus.
 • Play with food - Help your child to get involved in all aspects of food, from shopping to preparing and finally eating.  Encourage your child to ‘play’ with their food by exploring it with their fingers before eating and to make shapes out of their own food.
 • Variety is exciting - Generally, the wider the choice of foods at a mealtime the more food is consumed overall.  Offer plenty of different tastes and textures at each meal to excite your child’s senses.  Buffet-style meals are often a real hit with children

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