Food Neophobia in Children

Revisiting the Picky Eater Phenomenon: Neophobic Behaviors of Young Children

Betty Ruth Carruth, PhD, RD, and Jean D. Skinner, PhD, RD

Nutrition Department, College of Human Ecology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee []

Objectives: To compare picky eater behaviors (food neophobia) of children as toddlers and at 42 to 84 months of age and to assess their mothers’ neophobic behaviors.

Methods: In a follow-up study of toddlers’ picky eater behaviors, trained interviewers conducted four in-home interviews with mothers (n = 71) when their children were 42, 60, 72 and 84 months of age. Mothers reported children’s diets (1 weekend day and 2 week days, 12 days total) and their behaviors; weight and height were measured. An additional interview at 48 months involved only mothers’ behaviors. Nutritionist IV software, correlations, t tests and repeated measures ANOVA were used to determine nutrient intake, behavioral relationships and differences by picky eater status. Mothers’ descriptions of the children’s food neophobia and bothersome behaviors were analyzed by qualitative methods.

Results: Mothers reported children’s neophobic behaviors at all ages. Mothers’ and children’s behaviors were significantly and consistently correlated for number of attempts before deciding an unfamiliar food was disliked (p < 0.01) and trying unfamiliar foods away from home (p < 0.01). Other behavioral associations were significantly related for some ages but not for all the children’s ages. There were no significant differences by picky eater status for nutrient intake or height and weight at any age. Mothers most frequently attempted unfamiliar entrees away from home because of social setting/relationships. About 20% of mothers attempted unfamiliar foods or new recipes just because they were different.

Conclusions: Findings suggest that some neophobic behaviors of children did not improve with maturity. Mothers’ perceptions about their children’s picky eater status were inconsistent over time.

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