Purdue HHS researcher offers guidance for holiday meals with picky or reluctant eaters

Written By: Rebecca Hoffa, rhoffa@purdue.edu

Child picking at food

After spending a long day in the kitchen preparing a holiday dinner for the entire family, it can be frustrating to look up and see a child at the table who refuses to eat the majority of what has been placed before them. However, the underlying driver is more than simply a phase all children go through.

Kameron Moding

Kameron ModingPhoto provided

Kameron Moding, assistant professor of human development and family studies in Purdue University’s College of Health and Human Sciences, studies how picky eating, or selectivity with both familiar and unfamiliar foods, and food neophobia, or reluctance toward unfamiliar foods, relate to temperament and personality. Moding’s research shows that children who are more shy or fearful tend to be more food neophobic, or hesitant to try new foods.

“There are some kids who love trying new foods or have no problem trying new foods, and there are other kids who really don’t like trying new foods, and it can actually be a scary thing for them,” Moding explained. “We find that temperament actually relates to how they respond to new foods.”

Large holiday meals, with specialized casseroles like green bean casserole or sweet potato casserole, can pose a unique challenge for children because of their mixed dishes, where all ingredients cannot be identified.

“One thing that’s important to keep in mind is that with mixed dishes, even if the child has had every single component of the mixed dish, when you put it all together, it becomes a new food because they haven’t had it before,” Moding said. “When they look at it, it doesn’t look like something they’ve tried before.”

However, Moding noted that in addition to the mixed dishes, other external factors, such as the stress of attending a holiday gathering, could play a role in a child’s refusal to try new foods, so parents shouldn’t assume that children don’t like these foods if they refuse to eat them in that environment.

“I think it’s tricky too because a lot of the holidays do have foods as a major focus of events, and it’s also hard because kids aren’t used to being around so many people, so how a child might respond at a holiday meal may not be an indication of anything,” Moding explained. “It could just be that they’re acting differently because they’re around all their cousins or people they haven’t seen in a while.”

For parents looking for solutions to help with their child’s food neophobia or picky eating during the holidays, Moding suggests some techniques that are supported by research in general environments.

Research suggests that repeated exposure can help children learn to like or tolerate foods that they may dislike upon their first taste or be reluctant to try, so offering the food to the child across multiple occasions is a strategy that may help.

“If parents are trying to decide if it’s a food that the child really likes or doesn’t, they can continue offering it afterward and not put so much pressure on these holidays meals that can be stressful for everyone anyway,” Moding said.

Other everyday, evidence-based strategies include having parents or siblings engage in positive modeling of the desired eating behavior or involving children in the preparation of the meal in small ways or with recipes that can be prepared in advance.

While very few studies have been done looking at food neophobia and picky eating over time, Moding advises that parents should not try to pressure children into trying new things because that may lead to these behaviors sticking around longer.

Although this may be a frustrating obstacle for parents, Moding noted that food neophobia and picky eating are not clinical issues unless it interferes with the child’s health.

“Most of this is not clinical,” Moding said. “There’s not a clinical diagnosis for this unless it starts to be really extreme pickiness, like if it’s starting to impact their nutrition. If they’re actually not getting the nutrients that they need and it’s starting to affect things like growth, that’s when it becomes an issue.”