One of the best gifts you can give to your child is a diverse palate. That is why variety is probably my favourite principle underpinning dietary planning.
With thousands of diverse foods available, and the infinite possibilities of combination of these foods, there really needs to be some sort of overarching principle that ensures each meal maximises our chances of consuming the things we should be eating, while not consuming too much of the things that we shouldn’t.
Of course, this principle can be challenging to observe when trying to feed your children.
It is widely appreciated that there is a U-shaped curve to food rejection. While in the infantile stages, children will try to eat just about anything they can (including things which aren’t food). From about 6 months of age, however, a new behaviour sets in—they start declining the food in front of them. This can continue until it peaks between two to six years of age, and then, fortunately, this behaviour starts to decline and plateau around adulthood, with only some food aversions occasionally sticking around.
So if kids generally grow out of their food aversions, why should we be concerned about them now? First, any food aversions established now may persist into adulthood; and second, the more food aversions that exist, the less dietary variety is possible.
There is no easy way to overcome food rejection, and it should be handled with a persistent trial-and-error approach. However, there may be value in finding out why it is that our kids don’t like certain foods.
Fortunately, a review published in 2016 provided insight into some of the possible causes of food rejection in childhood, and identified some effective strategies in overcoming food rejection.
The role of the parent
Positive food relationships start at home. Parents who eat a greater diversity of food naturally offer their kids a broader variety.
Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers should eat a variety of foods. Did you know that you can start your child off on the right nutritional foot before they’re even born? Of course, there are some foods that should be avoided, though you should eat as many different types of permitted foods as you can. Research has found that mothers who maintain a diverse diet during pregnancy and lactation may be able to enhance their infant’s preferences for these foods.
Eat with your children. Eating is a social activity, and children rely on their parents to help them classify the world around them. If your child sees you eating a broad variety of foods, they are more likely to want to try these same foods themselves. The more people that the child can see eating the foods the better.
Create a positive, happy environment around foods. The more that children associate positive experiences with foods, the less likely they will reject them. Have fun with your food, use foods as rewards and not punishments, and involve your children in food preparation at every opportunity.
One theory suggests that children start to reject food around 2 years of age because that is when they start classifying the world around them. Although as infants they formed no distinction between food and non-food items, at 2 years of age, children start developing their own sense of what food should and shouldn’t look like.
Keep offering foods they reject. It is normal to want to give up trying to get your kids to eat foods that they reject time and time again. It feels like a waste of time and money. However, research suggests that it can take up to 15 exposures before a child feels comfortable with a food. This means that they need to see a food on their plate up to 15 times before they are comfortable with it being there, and then they may need to taste a food up to 15 times before they are comfortable with its taste.
Get ahead of your child in infancy. Children are going to start categorising foods as acceptable and non-acceptable based on their experiences as an infant. So, maximise the window of opportunity when your infant is around 6 months old and start exposing them to new sights, tastes and smells so that when they do start to classify foods at toddler age, there are more foods within their ‘acceptable category’.
By no means is this list exhaustive. There are many, many, reasons why children reject food. The best thing we can do as parents is to keep on keeping on. Be persistent and try not to feel too discouraged when they throw their peas on the floor for the hundredth time.
Maybe one day when they grow up to have kids of their own they’ll understand what we went through. 😂