The effects on children’s food acceptance that parents can have are large. Right from the prenatal stage, babies are exposed to the diets of their mothers. Then, decisions about whether or not to breastfeed, and for how long, affect the variation in flavours that the baby receives, with breast fed babies receiving more variation in flavours that may then help them to accept a wider variety of foods later in life. The age at which weaning begins may also have an effect on children’s willingness to try new foods. The availability of healthy foods in the house, and the frequency they are eaten by the parents, also matter. All of these factors appear to influence, in some small way, taste and food acceptance in infancy.
How parents manage temporary or longer term periods of fussy eating also has enormous potential to affect longer term eating. Very controlling and pressuring practices are associated with even greater reductions in willingness to try new foods and reduced choice of those foods on subsequent occasions. On the other hand having NO rules about trying new foods and being too permissive with regard to children’s eating tends to result in children who consume fewer fruits and vegetables. Therefore feeding practices somewhere in the middle of these two are required- ‘authoritative feeding’:
- parents model intake
- prompt children to taste new foods but don’t force them to eat
- positive emotional climate is present at the mealtime
- Using small rewards for trying new foods (e.g. a sticker, NEVER pudding) can help some children get over their initial reticence to try something new
- Exposure then takes place, which will gradually lead to acceptance, as long as the food is not intensely disliked by the child
There are some children though, for whom these practices are simply not going to work to induce them to try a new food and if they do taste it, they are more likely to find the taste quite unpleasant. For example, one of our studies showed that children who have very high levels of taste and smell sensitivity don’t eat many fruits and vegetables even when their parents eat enormous amounts of the stuff. In these cases, it will probably take a long time before children accept such foods into their diets, in other words, when neophobia gradually tails off later in childhood, and when their sensory processing of taste results in less intensely negative consequences of tasting.
In summary, it’s a bit about what you as a parent do, and a bit about your child’s own make up that determines how much they are going to like and consume fruits and vegetables.