Until about halfway through their second year, most babies are reasonably enthusiastic eaters - happy to eat a wide range of different foods and willing to try something new. Then seemingly overnight, well-liked foods start being rejected, and anything unfamiliar is treated with the utmost suspicion. What scientists call ‘neophobia’ has set in and it is very common indeed. Meaning literally, ‘fear of the new’, neophobia, together with a general pickiness emerges when children are between 18 months and two years old. Evolutionary psychologists believe that when humans were cave-dwellers, such a tendency would have stopped young and newly-mobile children eating unfamiliar plants or berries which might be poisonous. Indeed research has shown that it is the very foods we most want children to eat – fruit and vegetables - that are most often rejected at this stage. Knowing all this is not much help though, when your child has refused to eat anything green or remotely nutritious and is existing on a diet of plain pasta and orange juice! Mothers know that children need plenty of fruit and vegetables so they resort to a wide range of strategies to achieve the vital 5 a day.
More than half the mothers surveyed in the USA and the UK, say they offer their children rewards of sweets or treats in exchange for eating healthy foods, and most feel that it works. On the other hand, many of them feel that there is something not quite right about this practice and some of the experimental evidence suggests that it can have negative effects. For example, some studies have shown that if you offer ice cream as a reward for eating peas, your child may grow to like the ice cream even more, and the peas even less than they did before. And if you decide to stop offering the ice cream after a while, then peas may be rejected once again. Not quite the outcome we were looking for!
There is no doubt that hiding vegetables in a pasta sauce is an effective way of getting them eaten, but there is a down side to this practice – your child won’t actually taste the vegetables. If they don’t taste them, they won’t get to like them and if they catch you doing it, you are back to square one!
When you have tried every other method of getting your child to eat, getting cross is sometimes unavoidable. Hard as it sometimes is, keeping your temper and avoiding the use of threats and punishment is really important. When mealtimes become a battlefield, children start to associate certain foods (usually vegetables) with conflict and unhappiness.
The good news is that scientists working in the area of eating behavior have developed and tested some feeding strategies that actually work to increase children’s liking for vegetables, rather than just getting them to consume them under sufferance.
Most mothers say that if their child rejects a food on 3-5 occasions, they give up and don’t offer it again. What the research shows is that this is simply not enough to change preferences. Children aged from 2-5 years need to taste something between 10-15 times before it becomes familiar and accepted. That may sound daunting and even impossible, but tiny tastes are all that is needed. Here’s how to do it.
In a recent study, researchers found that children liked the vegetable more and ate much more of it after they had tasted it at least ten times. If you have ever tried to give up sugar in your tea or coffee then you will know that this works for adults too. At first it tastes horrible without sugar, but after a while you prefer it that way.
Of course, there are some children who simply won’t agree to try anything and this was the inspiration for the research that led to the production of the Tiny Tastes pack. We set out to investigate whether we non-food rewards might encourage fussy eaters to taste new foods without the negative effects mentioned earlier.
In our first study, we went to primary schools and worked with the Reception and Year 1 children giving them tastes of vegetables that they weren’t keen on every day and rewarded some of them with stickers. Other children also tasted the vegetables, but didn’t get a sticker. What we found was that getting a sticker every day for trying a disliked vegetable, made even the most reluctant children taste it. After at least 10 tastings, children liked it more and ate more and this didn’t change even after we stopped giving them stickers. In the 2nd study we visited children at home and asked their parents or carers to carry out the daily tasting and sticker reward procedure. We got the same positive results in this study and parents and carers said how much they had enjoyed using Tiny Tastes.