Why? Innate Survival Tactics

Prefers Sweeter Foods

How Do Innate Survival Tactics Influence Eating Behaviour In Young Children?

Most children seem to have a preference for sweet tastes. Why? Well science suggests that the preference for sweet rather than bitter tastes and the suspicious or fear of trying new foods or new tastes is based in the basic survival techniques of our prehistoric ancestors as a protective mechanism from eating things that may be poisonous and an attraction to sweet foods such as fruits which are safe, energy and nutrient rich.

In so many ways we are all still ‘wired’ like our prehistoric ancestors. A dislike of bitter foods can be seen as a protective mechanism from eating things that may be poisonous. A toddler in prehistoric times for instance, when exploring their world, would be less likely to ingest a poisonous food due to its bitter taste. Children are naturally attracted to sweet foods such as fruits which are safe, energy and nutrient rich. Mother’s milk which is also ‘safe’ is relatively sweet.

This suspicion or dislike of new foods is technically known as “food neophobia”, or fear of eating new things. It is usually about the age of 2 years that most traditional societies cease breastfeeding and the child is less dependent on their mother for food. Avoiding unfamiliar foods is an innate way of keeping safe as a young child, when left to their own devices, having no real way of knowing what is or is not safe to eat.


Picky Eater

Ever wondered WHY you child is so picky with food?

Probably every day – right?

There are very real and legitimate reasons that children become so fussy with food. It is not just to annoy and frustrate parents or to be obstinate. Although we have all felt that must be so at times!

Innate survival tactics, different developmental and growth rates, as well as physiological factors such as illness, nutrient deficiencies, and poor muscle tone are just some of the reasons that your child may become a picky eater.

Understanding those reasons and the sources of a child’s picky eating habits will go a long way in helping you more easily work around and deal with the problem and to help your child to eat more healthily and to broaden their tastes.


Father With Toddler

Do You Have A Picky Eater At Your House?

Does your child fuss and reject food once in a while or do you have daily battles at meal times?

Every child is unique with his or her own particular likes and dislikes, which can sometimes change on a daily basis. Their overall appetite may also be equally unpredictable. Toddlers and pre-schoolers (& sometimes older children) commonly go through a stage of being very “picky eaters”.

Studies show that as many as 1 in 4 toddlers can be defined as ‘food rejecters’ and refuse to eat what has been prepared for them at least half of the time. They may reject anything that is in any way different to what they are used to or that may be presented in a different way or they may have food “fads”, eating only very specific and limited favourite foods – their “flavour of the month”. As long as these are relatively healthy choices there is little need to worry.

How is “picky eating” defined then?

I see picky eating on a continuum with the occasional toddler or ‘fusspot’ eating at one end and more difficult selective eating and food rejection at the other and many variations in between.

Let’s look at some definitions.

The term picky eater has been defined in a number of different ways.

For instance, Marchi and Cohen (1990) defined picky eating by the presence of three of the following child behaviours:

  • does not eat enough
  • is often or very often choosy about food
  • usually eats slowly
  • is usually not interested in food

To me, this definition covers the milder (left) of my continuum and is very typical of toddlerhood. It could cover those children who do actually eat most of the time but may only eat a couple of very specific meals and nothing else. For instance, won’t eat any vegetable, won’t eat any fruit, will not eat “green” things or will only eat “white” foods.

On the other hand, Timimi, Douglas and Tsiftsopoulou (1997) looking at children aged 4 to 14 years defined fussy and picky eating as; “a specific and persistent pattern of behaviour consisting of a refusal to eat any foods outside of a limited range of preferred foods”.

They also included accompanying behaviours such as resisting attempts as self-feeding, gagging, spitting out food, mealtime disruptive behaviours, playing with food at mealtimes, excessively slow eating and difficulties swallowing or chewing food. This definition seems to be more toward the more severe end of the continuum.

Picky with real food vs processed ‘food like substances’

Once, a picky eater was defined as one who would only eat a limited number of foods but, for the most part, those foods would have been “real” foods. For children today the risk is that picky eating may mean that they will only eat highly processed, high energy but nutrient devoid fast foods and convenience snacks such as crisps, crackers, processed cereals and such. So at a time when the food that your child does choose to eat may be highly processed, additive laden and not containing the vital nutrients that a small body needs to grow and develop, it is vital that fussy or picky eating is addressed as soon as possible.

Are you a Good Role Model?

Family Meal

Children are very keen observers of what significant adults in their lives are doing. As well as parents, this will include grandparents, extended family members, family friends and even older brothers and sisters.

Here are some key questions to ask yourself

  • Do I eat regular meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner? If not, how can I expect my child to do so?
  • Do I always eat healthy nutrient dense fresh foods? If not, how can I expect my child to?
  • Do I pick at food and not eat particular vegetables? Your child will mimic this. If mum or dad is a picky eater and isn’t willing to eat the new foods, neither will the child.
  • Where do I eat meals? In front of the TV? At the kitchen bench? On the run driving to work?
  • Does my family sit together and enjoy the majority of breakfasts and evening meals together?
  • Do I share the same meal as my child or do I expect them to eat something different?

When it comes to healthy eating, the best thing you can do as a parent is to be a good role model. Don’t expect your child to eat foods that you won’t.

What your child learns about food begins with you. You may not realise it but you are continually educating your child about food on a daily basis, especially during the first 10 years or so of their life.

Research shows that most picky eaters grow out of this stage when they are ready and particularly where the closest role models (parents) have healthy eating habits for them to emulate.

Children want to be “mini you”, be just like mum and dad. Most parents notice, comment on and smile at imitative behaviours such as talking on a pretend mobile phone like mum or dad BUT have you made the connection between imitation of your own eating habits and your child’s eating habits?