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With Patience, Even Picky Eaters Will Eventually Love Their Veggies

BOONE–It’s mealtime and the struggle begins. Any parent of a picky eater knows that getting a child to eat a meal that includes a variety of vegetables or fruit can turn into a battle of wills.

Why are some children more picky than others at mealtime?

Amy Galloway, an assistant professor in Appalachian State University’s Department of Psychology who studies food pickiness and food neophobia in young girls, says mothers and formula feeding are contributors.

While a postdoctoral fellow at Pennsylvania State University, Galloway studied the relationship between food neophobia, pickiness and vegetable consumption in 7-year-old girls.

Her research, which has been published in the Journal of The American Dietetic Association, showed that the girls who were food neophobic usually had mothers who were food neophobic, too. Young girls who were breast fed for more than six months were less likely to be picky eaters. Also, repeated exposure to vegetables and fruits, especially at an early age, reduced the young girls’ tendency toward pickiness.

A fear of new food, described as food neophobia, should be expected in very young children. “To a 2-year-old, everything is new,” Galloway said. That’s why parents can expect resistance the first time broccoli, green beans or sweet potatoes, for example, are offered, she explained.

As they grow older, children may be exposed to many kinds of foods, but some still aren’t willing to eat certain foods. “At that point, the child is considered to be a picky eater rather than being food neophobic,” Galloway said.

Although unintended, mothers play a role in a child’s pickiness. Mothers are usually the parent who introduces the child to variety — by eating different foods or by bringing an assortment of foods into the home and preparing it for meals. If a mother is a picky eater, chances are the child won’t be exposed to foods the mother doesn’t like, Galloway said.

Galloway’s study confirmed other published research that children who are breast fed for more than six months are more likely to eat foods when first offered to them. “The effects of breast feeding seem to be a stronger effect than we imagined,” Galloway said. Exposure to breast milk gives children experience with a variety of flavors compared to the relatively bland formula diet that many children are fed, she said.

Perseverance, not frustration, is key to changing a child’s food preferences.

“Repeated exposure is really what reduces the chances of a child being picky. A prime time to introduce children to new foods is when they are young,” Galloway said. One study conducted by Galloway’s colleague Leann Birch found that young children sometimes have to be exposed to a new food 10 to 15 times before they will accept it.

“Most parents never try that many times,” Galloway said. “My colleagues found if they kept offering the children the food, not in a coercive way, but just every day ask them to try a bite, finally they would eat it as if they had never had a problem with it.” Galloway added that the repeated exposure to the food, coupled with repeatedly tasting the food, helped reduce food pickiness.

“It doesn’t always happen, but we found that to be generally the case, that eventually they would learn to like a food,” she said.

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Contact: Amy Galloway, (828) 262-6032