Is Your Child Neophobic? Give Her More New, Not Less

May 5, 2009 by


YOUNG CHILDREN TEND TO BE FEARFUL of new foods, especially when the foods are arranged into the shape of a clown.

Young children tend to be naturally neophobic—afraid of newness—about food, experts now tell us.  But is this neophobia inborn in normal children? Au contraire: children are born naturally wanting to discover and explore.  Infants are ready to put anything and everything in their mouths.

Yet I  have observed that the majority of kids who have come to my house over the years— though not my own kids—have indeed been afraid of not just new foods, but of food in general, including chicken, peas, potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce—you name it—except maybe desserts and trusted processed foods that come in packages.

The “solution” these experts offer to this fear of new foods is to deaden it with monotony: offer the fearful child the same food 15 or 20 times until she isn’t afraid of it any more. Not that she won’t still be afraid of new foods in general, but her fear of that one food should diminish.  Two or three weeks straight of carrots, then of peas, followed by spinach. By that time, familiarity will probably have bred contempt, but at least the fear will be gone.

Hardly a miracle cure. The cure may be worse than the disease.

What if, instead of addressing the fear of a given food, we could eliminate the fear of new foods in general?  It’s like the idea of giving a man a fish and feeding him for that day versus truly transforming his life by teaching him to fish so that he can eat every day on his own.

I think of the advice I used to hear that we shouldn’t avoid making noise during baby’s naps because it’s better that he get used to sleeping through natural daytime noise than getting hooked on artificial silence.  At first, the noise may interrupt a nap, but a habit will be built for better long-term results.

We can see a similar principle at work in schools as we respond to kids becoming less and less interested in learning.  We try to solve the problem by making studies less challenging, less demanding, less thought-provoking, more dumbed-down and pre-digested. And if they still don’t get it? Review the same information over and over. Are we seeing more interest in learning as a result, or less?

Avoiding newness because they’re afraid of it will only make the problem worse. Pussy-footing around children only encourages their fussiness and balkiness instead of confronting it for the nonsense it is. How can they be afraid of new foods if they get nothing but a steady stream of new foods? Newness in general will become old hat. Just think of the possibilities for a child who gets comfortable with such continual risk!

So quit breathing down their necks and working so hard at it. Fussy, fearful parents make for fussy, fearful kids.

But don’t back down:  keep feeding them the biggest variety of the tastiest Real Foods you can manage. That’s the best insurance for optimal nutrition. Try new recipes relentlessly. Make something new as often as possible, at least once a week, taking confidence from knowing you’re on the right track. Make meal time as surprising and exciting as possible. Do not fear their fear.

Make an enticing new home-cooked meal with an attractive balance of flavors and colors and textures. Put it before hungry little humans. Your job as the parent is then over at that point; that’s where their appetites take over.

Provide nothing but the foods you want them to eat, but do not require them to eat anything.

They’ll be unsettled at first. They may get hungry, but that may be the best cure for fear of food, after all.

Allow them to serve themselves and enjoy themselves in peace, without feeling controlled, pressured, or scrutinized. Could that pressure be what they’re really afraid of, in fact?

They’ll soon realize they have nothing to fear but neophobia itself.

Related post:

“How to get kids to eat at the table? The push and pull principle”

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 4 May 2009 / All rights reserved