Neophobia 101: When picky eaters confound Ethicureanish intentions

istock_girlwithfriesMy 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.

23 Responsesto “Neophobia 101: When picky eaters confound Ethicureanish intentions”

  1. Yup, I have one. Four kids who will eat pretty much anything I put in front of them, one who loves to experiment with offal and strange plants I’d never thought of eating and one who…won’t. Won’t eat eggs, won’t eat oatmeal. Won’t eat sandwiches, won’t eat soup, won’t eat salad. Won’t eat chicken, turkey or duck. The food can’t touch, can’t be layered and can’t be certain colors. Taco Bell burritos? Sure, she’ll eat those. Ugh.

    She’s also emotionally sensitive, cries over math lessons, MUST call her friend every day just to check in, and can’t sleep if her bangs are so long they touch her eyebrows. I’ve read all the advice about “if you’ll just give them raw fish and raw egg yolk as a baby, they’ll eat it as a toddler and child” and you know what? I give it a 50% chance of succeeding. In other words: it might, it might not.

    I got so exasperated with my neophobic that I turned her loose in the kitchen at age 10. I gave her the basics of safety and told her, “Decide what you would like to eat, write it on the shopping list and learn how to make it.” At 13, she has turned into a pretty good cook, isn’t afraid to make dishes for the whole family and is eating two whole meals a day! Wow! There are still moments, however…

  2. Chuck says:

    We’ve got a couple kids like that in my extended family. Mealtimes are an ordeal as their parents badger them to eat. It doesn’t seem to matter that the kids are health and look good, I think it’s the parents that have the real problem.

  3. rosie_kate says:

    I honestly think that children are very intuitive about what they eat.  Of course, they are subject to habits as well, as when a parent starts bad habits through what they offer.  But when you’ve done everything right as far as exposing them only to good food and the child still won’t eat, I start to suspect a digestive problem.  I think sometimes they won’t eat things that they intuitively know they can’t digest.  Not that they can necessarily digest the things that they DO eat, but they’re hungry, so they only eat the most tempting offerings.  By age four, the digestion has had time to mature a little, and suddenly they eat more variety.  I think that might explain the stereotypical “kids don’t like vegetables” thing.  Vegetables are often actually the hardest to digest for small children (contrary to popular “wisdom”). 

    Perhaps that’s not the case, but it’s just my thoughts and observations on the matter.

  4. sheila says:

    I thought picky kids were the parents fault, until I had one.  First kid ate everything, still does 3o yrs later.  Third kid, in her 2o’s now, had only a handfull of accepted foods.  Breads
     (at least she prefered whole wheat), baked goods, sweets, all great.  Veggies, not so much.  For a good ten years she only ate potatoes, corn, raw red peppers, and raw carrots.  Protein was scrambled eggs, grilled cheese, or mac and cheese (homemade with no onions) using cheddar cheese only.  Heinz catsup was a must though.  The only thing that she wasn’t picky about was fruit, she ate huge amounts of all kinds of fruits.  I taught her how to use the stove at 8 so she could make eggs or grilled cheese while the rest of us ate a regular meal.

  5. Charlotte says:

    I have a picky 48 year old boyfriend. He is a lovely lovely man with all the fine qualities one would want in a life partner except … he doesn’t eat vegetables, or most fruits, or mushrooms, or olives, or fish, or any cheese more pungent than gouda. He’d happily live (and mostly does) on a diet of meat and potatoes. I’ve learned over the years to cook my own veggies for dinner, and eat my most adventurous meals at lunch. Thank goodness we met when we were both old enough to be tolerant of other peoples’ quirks (and to know better than to try to change other people).

  6. Expat Chef says:

    Never easy. Even when you start them out on the right stuff. But, it’s not just food, right? It’s darn near everything that can be a battle. :) Dealing with the exposure to “why other kids get school lunch and I don’t” now. Oh boy. Onward. And congrats!

  7. Cari says:

    I have a son who is 25 and he was definitely a neophobic!  He now has a 3 year old son who inherited this.  For both of them it is all about texture and you definitely can not mix foods.  What they do eat is not always healthy.  At 25, thank goodness, my son now eats a lot of foods and no longer has as many issues with food.  He still tends to go to unhealthy carbs when he is stressed, short on time or on money for groceries.  His son eats fruit, ezekial or spelt toast, cheese, eggs, nut crackers and his Juice Plus+; he also drinks almond milk but no fruit juices or sugar drinks. He also does not eat any meat or vegetables.  We supplement his diet with Juice Plus+, because it is a whole food supplement that contains whole fruits and vegetables.   We also do not make a huge deal out of meal times.  Like his dad, he will eventually out grow this and eat a variety of healthy foods.  For all those people who believe it is a parenting issue, well, you obviously have never raised a neophobic child or you would know it is NOT a parenting issue!  If you have a “picky eater” check out my website for more information on whole food supplements:

  8. Cari says:

    One other thing: with my son we made all the mistakes, feeding him unhealthy foods so he at least ate something.  He loved crackers, mac & cheese, corn, frozen peas (not cooked) and french fries.  With his son, he did it right.  He started him on vegetables at one.  He cooked and served him vegetables they made, not store bought baby food.  His son’s favorite was fresh, mashed avocados.  His son never really liked the fruits mashed up and never ate the meats mashed up.  Now, his son won’t touch a vegetable!

  9. Tamara says:

    I feel for you.  I used to be a picky eater (never touched a slad til lI was 16, and then, only if there was no dressing), only veggies I’d eat were potatos, raw carrots, and peas.  I survived, and so will yours.  Meanwhile, a great fun and funny read(with recipes) about the whole thing is Hungry Monkey, by Matthew Amster-Burton.

  10. sage says:

    kids need those fats (even the saturated kind) to use the nutrients you’re trying to give them. i agree with the comment about digestibility. Eggs make sense as a food she would eat because they are high in all the good fats needed to grow a body and use the fat soluble vitamins in the veggies. I say more butter and whole milk (from pastured cows), whole yogurt, complete proteins (beans with corn or rice, and whole, traditional fats (no refined veggie oils). I grew up as a very picky eater in a vegetarian household, and when I didn’t like what I was given I would ask for milk and an egg. Kids need fat and protein from healthy sources.

  11. Emily says:

    I’ve been reading your column for a while and I really like this one. :-) I don’t have kids yet, but I can see bits of my siblings and me in your children. Mostly I wanted to support and encourage you to keep writing good stuff.

  12. Charlotte says:

    Another good read on the subject is Melanie Rehak’s “Eating for Beginners” — a year in her life learning to cook in a restaurant, learning about local foods, and struggling with a neophobic toddler.

  13. Natalie says:

    I like articles like this that remind me that I’m not alone in this world.  And it’s good to know that I’m doing the right thing.  I’m very mellow about it; if she doesn’t eat, she doesn’t eat.  I like on the day as a whole and sometimes a week’s span to evaluate what she’s eaten.  The case is usually that she has one big meal that is cause for a secret table glance at my husband that she’s eating, followed by 3-4 bird-like days.  She’s not yet two, and I know I have years of this to look forward to.  The 3 quarters hereditary I find very interesting along with a shy personality… my mother in law informs me all the time about her father’s eating habits as a child (lack there of I should say.. eating only spagettios for years) and she displays his shyness.  It’s all his fault ;)

  14. Alexis says:

    I do have one question, since you say you’re following Ellyn Satter (I do as well, and I’m in the depths of the 3yo picky stage)–do you make sure to serve one item you know she’ll eat? Does she eat it when you do that?

  15. Ali says:

    Alexis – we do try to put down something that she’ll like, or at least to mix it in. Does she eat it? Sometimes. Depends on the thing. Berries? Usually. Pasta? Sometimes. Beans? Sometimes. But the problem is that she eats only that. So does it help? Does it only reinforce? Who knows.

    Sage – we do give her a fair amount of fat. At the doctor’s recommendation (and kind of gut instinct) she’s still on whole milk, and I have never been one to fear butter or olive oil.

    Appreciate hearing that there are others out there struggling, and especially love the tips about setting them loose in the kitchen when they’re old enough!

    Loved Hungry Monkey, look forward to Eating for Beginners.

  16. Picky eating serves a function. Children have a more acute sense of taste and wiring to avoid novel foods with a good reason. I keeps us from getting poisoned by our food. The tend to like much blander foods than adults. In time their tastes expand. Seeing their parents and cohorts eat foods, and survive, encourages them to do so too in time. But it does take time and it is a development stage. We encourage them to try tiny amounts but don’t push the issue too hard.

  17. I have the same situation at my house.  Served both my boys healthy foods and if they didn’t like it, better luck next meal.  My older son accepted this system and learned to like most foods at an early age. My younger son is now 10 and fights it every chance he gets. He literally would rather go hungry than eat a fruit or vegetable much of the time.  No problem eating chicken nuggets or mac and cheese! I thank God all the time for leading me to discover a whole food supplement that puts fresh, raw produce in a capsule or soft chewie.  It gives me peace of mind to know he’s “eating” 17 fruits and veggies every day even on the days his jaws are firmly clenched shut!

  18. chimene says:

    Our almost-18yo singleton is a neophobe (thanks! for that great word!!)  He ate pretty much anything we put in front of him early on, and started eliminating things as he grew older!  He is now down to cheese tillas, peanut butter tillas, home-burgers, Pringles.  Tillas is home code for tortilla, he recently accepted a new whole-wheat variety, hallelujah.  Corn on the cob, carrots, broccoli (he’s trying to drop sugar snap peapods for pete sake!).  Home-made fish & chips & pan-fried sole.  He will only eat bacon as bits put into pancakes! Milk, ice-water (at least he’s not interested in sugar-waters, mostly because he doesn’t “do” carbonation).  (Limited selection of junk food, donuts, candy bars)  We can still force him to eat a chicken sandwich, while the chicken is fresh from the oven.  There ARE lots of food sensitivities, and a couple of slam-bang allergies, on both sides of the family, so a certain amount of this may be unconscious “watching out for stuff that’ll kill me”.  His father also had a limited list of acceptable foods as a child, but forced himself to add foods in his late teens, as it became too embarrassing to demonstrate his own limited palate in front of GIRLS…  we can only hope that this will eventually kick in for the kiddo!

  19. Expat Chef says:

    I think there’s a good reason that it’s neo PHOBIA. But the cure for any phobia is gradual exposure to the new item. This goes for heights and closed spaces as well as broccoli. I’ve got kind of the opposite issue. My kid was always adventurous with tasting, which included potting soil, bathwater, trash cans, and even water off the top of a manhole cover. Can’t tell you how happy I was the day she outgrew the ability to bite her own toenails. We still fight food battles, but different kinds like the preference for sweet and the whole not sure about combination foods like a mix of vegetables and rice. It’s a journey, isn’t it?

  20. JessA says:

    I did everything right.  I followed Ellyn Satter, I read every parenting book, I consulted my pediatrician, I never badgered him, I grew food with him, I cooked with him and at the age of 14, my son still eats the same diet he did when he was two; about 6 different things total.  We had a nutritionist look over his food intake and we were told he gets enough calories, to supplement with vitamins and he should be okay.  He is tall, slim and athletic, but I do still worry.   But I am done with rules,  after 12 years, I was all wore out.  I don’t allow junk, but if he wants to eat cereal at dinner, I let him.  I figure when he goes off to college, he’ll have to expand.  BTW: I have two other children who will eat anything.  I mean anything.

  21. Laurie says:

    I absolutely loved reading this! We don’t have children yet, but we are, like you, card-carrying CSA members, locavores, people who love to eat good food. But I was a very picky eater as a child. I had to literally force myself to learn to eat vegetables (following a very complicated ritual that involved pinching my nose shut and ending with a big swallow of diet Coke…yikes!) when I was 29 or so.

    So, as you can imagine, I have a lot of fears of raising a child who is, well, like me! It’s good to hear that there is so much more information out there. Many of the things my parents tried, which didn’t work on me, are the things you’re saying don’t work. For instance, the things my parents pushed hardest for me to eat are the things I literally cannot stomach today, like eggs. I’m so glad that your patience has born fruit and you have a frittata eating daughter who’s also starting to appreciate the amazing food that is goat cheese. Bravo! I hope you all have many more reasons to high five after dinner in the future!

    Oh, and one more thought: I read somewhere that, as children, our tastebuds register sour very strongly, and don’t register sweet nearly as much. As adults, that apparently reverses: we become much less aware of sour and much more conscious of sweet. This is something I’ve definitely experienced, and it’s had a massive impact on my eating habits. I used to find broccoli incredibly bitter, and now I think it’s actually very sweet! Hopefully this change will help your daughter eat even more adventurously as an adult. :)

  22. Janel says:

    I have a 12yo who will eat anything and I have a 6yo who is neophobic. He ate well until about 3yo. Suddenly textures bothered him, he didn’t like touching his food he quit asking for bites of my food. He eats ok but not great. Very few veggies, and basically no fruits other than applesause or apple juice. My pediatrition recommended hiding veggies in foods he likes for example putting peas in his mac and cheese. HUGE mistake. It took me a month to get him to eat mac and cheese again. Also recommended to hide veggies in sauces but he only eats pizza sauce.(which I make from tomatoes and veggies from own garden) He will eat plain foods. Chicken, steak, ham, bacon, mashed potatoes w/o gravy, corn on the cob, yogurt etc. The only mixed foods he eats is PB&J sandwich,taco and pizza. My best advice to others is to make what they do eat as healthy as possible and keep trying over and over. As frustrating as it can be at times try to remain calm. My son ate PB&J toast cut up and eaten with a fork since about age 2. It was a huge step to get him to eat it as a sandwich with his hands. Thank goodness because school lunches were getting to be impossible. He just started eating scrambled eggs. He will eat a few green beans when forced or bribed, but some other things we have tried he just gags on. It is not pleasant when your child pukes on his plate at the dinner table. So we continue to play the game. Reward charts sometimes work. He will eat a chicken patty sandwich at school now, but he eats the bun seperate from the chicken. Weird but if it works for him who cares. Same with hot dogs. Bun seperate. It’s nice to know we are not alone. Best of luck to all of you and your children