From the moment we enter this world, our internal cues signal us when we are hungry and when we are satisfied. We are born with a sucking reflex so we can obtain nourishment. Once solid food is introduced, it’s a learning process. Up until now, we have largely considered this learning something that happens in infancy into early toddlerhood and as very intentional by the parent.
New research is demonstrating a more complex picture (Kinzler 2016). This study identified something that FamilyCook Productions has observed for two decades: food preferences are heavily influenced socially. These research findings explain the phenomena that so many parents lament over, where the so-called ‘good eaters’ at 2, 3, and 4 years seem to become picky eaters at 5 or 6. Not surprisingly, this can be traced to when a child enters elementary school where the meal is noisy and full of unmonitored child disdain. Socially, our children observe and then ‘learn’ what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ by watching other children (Young 2004). These new pronouncements about foods they have previously accepted, are the result, researchers conclude, of a hard-wired human need to avoid foods that are socially rejected.
The researchers hypothesize that such strong avoidance of foods that are observed as rejected by nothers is a protective attribute to ensure harmful substances are not ingested. So where does this new research leave a society that wants a cure for picky eaters? In our two decades of experience, we have found this answer leads right back to the family table. More than ever, with social cues being such a key factor in young children’s food preferences, the environment around feeding matters.
We have seen the importance of the social and emotional component of food acceptance born out in each session of our Willow program for preschoolers that operates in WIC centers across the US. Over and over again, parents who swear their child dislikes trying new foods watch in amazement as their child gobbles down kale salad, asparagus spears with hummus, rhubarb with plain yogurt, and even raw grated beets. Why? Because the session sets up for a communal and socially accepting group experience with prompters along the way to gradually and even ceremoniously ‘warm up’ the children to new foods.
Parents are then encouraged to use the exact same techniques at home, and are given take-home support to do so. Hence the well-intentioned parents who has spent time and energy into preparing a meal, places it on the table, and is crushed when their child refuses to eat it has new insight into the social and emotional component of food acceptance. Lacking this understanding, the child seeing a pile of new vegetables on their plate cries out for the ubiquitous french fries, ravioli, or chicken nuggets that generally live in the freezer. Mom, concerned her child will go hungry, gives in. With this action, a vicious cycle is triggered. The child has learned that when food he/she does not want is placed on the table, all they need to do is make a fuss and the offending food is replaced by their ‘kid food’ favorite.
One of Ellyn Satter’s “Division of Responsibility” in feeding key responsibilities for parents is structured meal times in a social setting with other family members (Satter 1995). This is key for both regular meals and snacks. Making mealtime a family time sets a pleasant environment around food and eating. In this way, food is showcased as the medium that brings the family together, to connect, bond, and celebrate happy times. Mealtime is a time to disconnect from technology and media and to become aware of what is in front of you: good company and good food. It sounds so simple; yet, it’s what happened for most of human existence – until the last couple of generations. We can’t turn back the clock, but we can soul search about our own family meal habits with this key new understanding.