We all know just how important multiple exposures to unfamiliar and disliked foods can be. I talk about this all the time - about how an exposure doesn't have to equate to actually swallowing a food, or even taking a nibble or lick. Just being around a food is enough!
I am a fan of family style serving because of all the pressure-free exposures it facilitates. But is there a way of giving children some of those valuable exposures without anything edible in the vicinity? Research tells us that there is.
What the research says
I came across a fascinating study carried out in 2009, at Reading University in the UK*. Researchers built on previous work which found that looking at pictures of food increased toddler's assessment of how much they liked that food. The researchers at Reading discovered that looking at pictures of food may also increase toddlers' willingness to try it.
Like most scientific research, the findings were not completely straightforward; when children were exposed to foods that they were already familiar with but didn't like, their willingness to try the food decreased. What this implies, is that showing children pictures of unfamiliar foods may reduce food neophobia (fear of unfamiliar foods), but will not necessarily help them accept disliked foods that are not new to them. What can we take from this? Well, illustrated picture books featuring foods that your child may not have come across many times before, may help them access a varied diet.
A word of warning
Art mirrors life, and children's books are no exception. Sometimes, unhelpful approaches to feeding where children are pressured to eat, are reflected in the books. For example, in Lauren Child's bestseller 'I Will Not Ever Never Eat a Tomato' Charlie persuades his sister Lola that all the things she doesn't want to eat are actually novelty items from outer space and far off lands (carrots become 'twiglets from Jupiter').
This is sort of endearing, but the message it gives children is that baldly stating their dislikes can become part of their identity, and something that they can get a ton of attention for. As someone who spends a lot of time teaching children to replace 'I don't like it' with 'I haven't learned to eat it yet' or 'I haven't had this enough times to get used to it', seeing Lola model the complete opposite is frustrating!
I am also wary of the books that are basically threatening children with covert health messages, like the slightly bizarre 'Vegetable Glue' by Susan Chandler, in which children need to eat their vegetables to stop various body parts falling off... I have written elsewhere about the futility and potential harm of trying to get children to eat by conveying a message about nutrition.
Which books should you go for?
The kind of books which will support children's relationship with food - while giving them exposures to the unfamiliar - are the ones which generate enthusiasm about what we eat. Maybe by growing food, cooking it or just getting to know more about it by looking at some cool pictures.
*Houston-Price, C., Butler, L.,and Shiba, P. (2009). Visual exposure impacts on toddlers’ willingness to taste fruits and vegetables. Appetite, 53(3), 450-453.