What Is Food Neophobia?

December 24, 2018

Food neophobia is when a child is scared of or refuses to eat new foods. This behavior is characteristic of a certain stage of children’s development.

Sharing a meal with family or friends is amazing. In most cultures, it also represents the foundation of most holidays and celebrations. It’s an excellent experience… unless one of the family members has food neophobia. If this is the case, then mealtimes often become exhausting and chaotic and involve constant negotiation.

Eating seems like a very simple process. We just put food in our mouth, chew, and swallow. However, it’s actually not that simple. Eating is an incredibly complex process that can be a real challenge for many people. It requires the cooperation and coordination of many systems.

What causes food neophobia?

This reluctance to try new foods is characteristic of all omnivorous species, including humans. It’s an innate reaction to protect us from potential environmental dangers. In our natural environment, many foods could be toxic. Thus, when faced with new foods, our natural reaction is caution. We avoid new foods whenever possible and consume familiar foods instead. Therefore, we only consider foods safe after we try them out a few times.

Food neophobia refers to children's aversion to new foods.

Another possible cause is flavor learning. People have four basic flavor receptors: salty, bitter, sour, and sweet. Sweet and salty flavors are innately preferred by babies as soon as they’re born. Children are more inclined toward sweet flavors than adults.

Flavor learning actually begins even before birth. Thus, babies tend to prefer certain flavors the pregnant mother consumed. Like pregnancy, babies also discover flavors through breastfeeding. Some flavors pass through breast milk. Therefore, the exposure to flavors in this stage of life constitutes a baby’s first flavor lessons.

What are the characteristics of food neophobia?

Food neophobia mainly appears during two critical stages: weaning (4-8 months of age) and autonomy (15-36 months of age). In the first stage, the mother-child bond helps prevent food neophobia because the child feels protected. The most problematic stage is when a baby reaches 15 months of age.

One of the characteristics of food neophobia is that children believe that new foods will have an unpleasant taste. Thus, it’s important to create positive experiences when it comes to making your child try new foods. Imitation tends to yield good results. For example, if your child sees you eating a certain food and showing signs that you like it, it’s very likely that your child will agree to try it.

This reluctance to try new foods manifests more frequently when it comes to:

  • Foods of animal origin versus foods of non-animal origin.
  • Raw versus cooked foods.
  • Sour or bitter flavors versus sweet ones.

What is the best way to handle food neophobia?

Studies show that the parents’ attitude toward the child’s behavior has a considerable impact on the development of children’s food preferences. Thus, to encourage the development of a beneficial diet, it’s important to keep in mind that parents have preconceptions of each of the foods they offer their children. For example, a restrictive attitude toward tasty foods makes a child’s preference for them increase. But a liberal attitude toward certain foods tends to have the opposite effect.

Food neophobia typically occurs at two childhood stages.

Pleasurable situations where the child tastes new foods with their parents tend to contribute to positive associations with the foods consumed in those situations, and vice versa. All this is proof of how important the parents’ response to their children’s eating habits is when it comes to the development of healthy food preferences.

Food neophobia usually decreases when the child reaches the age of 5 or 6. However, the child’s parents have to be patient with them so they can overcome it and adopt healthy eating habits.