As I sat down to lunch in the Redifer Dining Commons yesterday, I noticed something extremely interesting about my plate. It was piled high with hearty helpings of cauliflower and mixed steamed vegetables including peppers, lima beans, and broccoli. I was pretty impressed, considering 15 year old me would have opted for mashed potatoes and called it the daily veggie serving. This led me to ask myself a question I’ve always wondered about. Why do children resist eating vegetables? Is there scientific reasoning, or does the fault lie in the fact that parents constantly shoved vegetable baby food down their children’s throats? Following the motto of my initial post, I concluded that there has to be a scientific explanation for this stereotype.
And it turns out that I was correct in my assumptions. There is a scientific explanation for child resistance of vegetables, and it known as food neophobia. Simply put, it’s defined as a child’s disinclination to eat food. But food neophobia isn’t the only reason young kids avoid their vegetables. According to this research review from Appetite, food neophobia coupled with picky eating make for the two biggest culprits in the childhood boycott against vegetables. A child’s age, gender, social surroundings, and personality can all affect her level of pickiness; furthermore, variables like pressure, parenting styles and feeding styles have an affect on how long a child experiences food neophobia or fussy eating. Even visual appeal plays a role in a child’s level of food neophobia; the more unfamiliar a food looks, the more likely a child is to reject it.
image found here
The same excerpt from Appetite also presented an explanation for our growing tolerance of healthy food. When we are toddlers, our decreasing dependency on our parents increases our survival skills, one of which is the resistance of vegetables. Young taste buds are not developed enough to enjoy bitter foods, and instead react negatively towards the foods as a defense mechanism against what they think to be poison. In short, young children NATURALLY spurn bitter foods like vegetables. However, as we grow and our senses develop, we adapt to the bitterness in most vegetables, which justifies why I can now stack my plate with all different shades of green, orange, yellow, and red. It seems as if picky eating and food neophobia are just two more things we can add to the list of “phases” our parents love to discuss.
What I actually found most fascinating about my interest in this particular study was its relevance to our first class discussion with Andrew, that science is anti-authoritarian. No one forced me to research why kids dislike eating vegetables; I went about it on my own terms. I simply had a strong curiosity. The same goes for the scientists who researched food neophobia on their own volition. Like Andrew said, many believe science to be de-humanizing, when in fact it is a topic humans participate in and relate to the most.
The semi-disappointing piece of this puzzle is the fact that there really is no particular way to ensure kids will willingly consume vegetables from their first go at eating solids. Luckily, the Washington Post has provided us all with a short list of ways to get kids to eat their vegetables, so if/when food neophobia strikes our households in the distant future, we have something small to fall back on!