Neophobia 101: When picky eaters confound Ethicureanish intentions
My four-year old ate a vegetable frittata the other day. Mind you, this hardly ranks among the most staggering of childhood achievements. It's not exactly up there with the 2-year-old who gained admission to Mensa, or the kid who paints like Rembrandt, or the 13-year old best-selling author. But in our house, it's a reason to celebrate.
She is what they call "neophobic." Which is just a fancy way of saying that she's a picky eater.
Now, I know that the moment I put those two words down - picky eater - plenty of people out there have already made their judgment about our family: Picky eater? That's your fault, lady. If you simply exposed her to good food, she'd eat it, of course.
Except you're wrong.
In the case of my 8-year-old, I'd say that would have been a fair criticism - we started wrong with that kid, began her food career with items from boxes, marketed specifically for toddlers - starches and fats and vitamin fortification pressed into clever, kid-friendly shapes. At a certain point, around the time our older child was 18 months, we realized that chicken nuggets beget only cravings for more chicken nuggets. So we shifted her diet, ultimately convincing her (for real) of the joys of the kale chip.
We were determined to start off on the right foot with child #2.
By the time she arrived, nearly five years after child #1, we were card-carrying CSA members. We were farmers market shoppers. We were locavores, true believers in living soil and leafy greens and small-is-beautiful. We had read the books and seen the light. Make no mistake: that light was shining brightly on green fields growing in organic soil, pastured animals frolicking in the distance.
Rocking child #2 during her infancy, I didn't have a doubt that this was the kid who would embrace the rainbow on her plate, would grow up noshing on raw chard and heirloom tomatoes. We would do all the right things - visiting farms, growing our own, cooking together, family meals - and she, in return, would eat all the right things.
Except that's not how it turned out. Instead, she turned out to be a poster child for this thing called neophobia: pursed lips, skipped meal upon skipped meal, a steadfast refusal to eat anything that is not a white carbohydrate. No exaggeration here: this kid went through months of occupational therapy for "poor oral motor coordination," or whatever they called it, because we all thought she couldn't eat. Until she met cookies, at which point we realized she could eat just fine, thank you very much.
I mean, what the hell?
I suppose I hadn't yet learned The Great Parenting Lesson: that children are infinitely complex, and they don't lend themselves - ever - to simple formulas. To any and all future parents, allow me to save you several years of frustration: If you do X, your child will not necessarily do Y. The line is simply never that straight. (You're welcome.)
"Just serve her what the rest of the family eats," says our pediatrician, noting that she might be below the general weight curve, but that she is gaining some weight. "And if she's eating one decent meal a day, you needn't worry."
And she eats, precisely, one decent meal a day: breakfast, which we try to pack with as much nutrition as possible (on the menu: eggs, fruit, oatmeal, beans, milk, last night's leftovers, and plenty of ignored vegetables). Lunch? She often skips it. Dinner? Yeah, she pretty much always skips that.
Mind you, she would eat three square meals a day - or five, or seven - if only each meal were heaps of mac and cheese, or chicken strips with French fries and ketchup, followed by a bowl full of Dippin' Dots. And frankly, if we took this approach, it would come as no small relief to concerned relatives, who worry that a thin child can never be healthy, and isn't it better that she eats something, Ali?
("No," says our pediatrician, simply).
I'm not the first person to struggle with a neophobic kid. In fact, there's plenty of research into the phenomenon. And here's what the research tells us about neophobia: not only is it real, it also occurs equally across all income levels and ethnic groups. It appears to be about three-quarters hereditary, and one-quarter environmental. It is related to other personality attributes, like shyness. There are also some studies that confirm things we already know: that it affects what children eat, and don't eat, on a daily basis. Which is to say, they eat fewer fruits and vegetables, and fewer proteins. And more saturated fat and less overall variety of foods. (Well, um, yeah...of course.)
Think your kid is free from neophobia, because she's 14 months old and eats her peas? Fair warning: kids are most willing to eat a variety of foods between ages one and two. But that willingness declines thereafter, reaching its lowest point by age four. Kids even start hatin' on foods they previously liked.
So, what to do? The research suggests that repeated exposure to healthy food can help. Unless maybe it helps only with older children, and backfires with younger kids.
Our strategy, which we have employed with crossed fingers, has been to trust in our pediatrician, to trust in experts like Ellyn Satter, and to trust that probably, eventually, she'll figure it out. So we have served a variety of healthy foods. We visit farms, grow our own, and allow her to pick her own. We don't make a big deal out of her refusal to eat a food - the research is pretty clear that cajoling kids to eat foods doesn't help. We try to model good eating, but in a low-key way. We set the plate down on the table, we eat a family meal, we take the plate away when the meal is over. Sometimes, we serve the meal with ketchup.
In other words, we act mellow, as if we just know it's all going to work itself out these days. But I've also been keeping my eye on the calendar, hoping that what the research says is true: that by age four, her willingness to eat new things will have probably plummeted as low as it can go, with nowhere to go but up.
It plummeted, there was no doubt of that. And then, as if on schedule, just a few days after her fourth birthday, she ate that frittata - which was chock full of farm-fresh scallions and chard and zucchini and goat cheese.
My husband and I met eyes across the table as she ate, but we didn't say a word about it. When she asked for seconds - seconds! - we served them quietly, and without ceremony.
But I'd be a liar if I didn't admit that later, in the kitchen, he and I quietly exchanged a high five.
"Who is that kid?" my husband whispered as our hands slapped.
"Shh," I said. "Let's not jinx it."
It's not much. It's a frittata. It's not like having an Einstein IQ or anything. But for this kid? It's beautiful.
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