Are you frustrated that your child won't eat the food you serve? Do you feel like it’s a lost cause? Hope this post helps put your mind at ease, motivates you to play the long game, and get you fired up about EXPOSURE!
We know that early childhood is a critical time for establishing food preferences and dietary habits. One of the most important things we can do to help encourage our children to develop a liking for certain food(s) is through repeated exposure.
Research suggests that offering a disliked food continuously (at least 15 times), will lead to familiarity which will lead to acceptance. And the effects of early familiarization appear to have a lasting effect on consumption (source).
I want to add here that the effectiveness of repeated exposure has been shown mostly with children up to 36 months of age. Further research is needed with older children, but so far we know that older children (2-5 years of age) are less likely to accept new foods even with repeated exposure compared to younger infants (source).
This may partly be due to the food neophobia, or fear of new foods, that appears around this age. It doesn't mean it's impossible to get them to open up to new foods. It's just going to be more challenging.
I mention this to encourage you to start exposing your little one to a wide variety of flavors and textures as early as possible!
I personally set a goal for myself to introduce 100 new foods before 1, and that really motivated and challenged me to think beyond my usual food repertoire. You can check out the food list here.
So what does repeated exposure look like in practice? It's simply offering a food multiple times in different ways.
For instance, if you're struggling to get your child to eat their vegetables (you are NOT alone!), try switching up cooking methods and flavoring agents, serve with dips/sauces, etc.
Here are some inspirations to help get you started:
Play the Long Game
Now, let's walk through the different scenarios of what your child might do with the food you serve over and over again. Note, your child isn't necessarily going through this process in the order as shown in the image above.
And I’m using broccoli as an example bc it was a REALLY difficult food for my baby to learn to enjoy. I lost count how many times (>30) I offered before he started opening up to it.
- Ignored - Even when the food gets completely ignored, simply seeing it takes the newness out. The next time they see it, they’ll go, “ooh! I know you!” Now, it may continue to get ignored for a while, but if you stop offering, then you’ll miss that chance of when they do decide to give it a try⠀
- Playing - touching, smelling, tearing it apart, crushing, throwing…you get the idea. So frustrating to see as parents (don’t let them sense this!) but this is actually really great stuff! Let them explore till their hearts’ content!⠀
- Tasting - kissing, licking, putting on the tongue, spitting it out…the tongue has the tastebuds so even though food doesn’t get eaten, your child still got exposure to the flavor. That’s HUGE! Repeated flavor experiences help promote the willingness to eat a variety of foods⠀
- Eating - involves chewing and actually swallowing. Hallelujah! the food finally makes it into the belly. For those of you who are just beginning their baby led weaning journey, C didn't eat much of anything until about 2.5 weeks into starting. And this is quite normal and to be expected. But he was doing a lot of tasting! So don’t be too concerned and continue to provide plenty of opportunities for them to explore food!⠀
To sum, yes the end goal is for the child to actually eat the food but don’t rush the process! Food left on the plate is NOT wasted. All of these scenarios count as exposure, and you’re winning with every.single.one of them. Don't give up! You're doing awesome!
Also be sure to check out my instagram: Kidfriendly.meals for more feeding tips and family-friendly meal ideas/recipes!