To dislike a few foods in this world is not a big deal. It’s entirely natural (I never let out whoops of joy if runner beans appear on my plate). As a parent it can be incredibly frustrating, particularly when there seems to be no logic behind it (baked potato, good; mashed potato, bad). If you have a child like mine who dislikes a couple of things, that’s workable. On the other hand, if you have a child who will only eat one or two foods, that’s a nightmare.
After the cajoling and bribes have failed, many parents conclude these dislikes are somehow ingrained in their child’s DNA. The child was born a fussy eater and will always be a fussy eater. As many as a quarter of adults are neophobic, that is fussy about what they eat.
But is it such a fait accompli? In her book First Bite, Bee Wilson explores whether we can be taught how to eat and change the habits of a lifetime. We are not born knowing what to eat, we learn it. It may not be easy to change the way we eat, but it is not impossible.
It seems we are born with a natural aversion to all things bitter (bitterness being nature’s way of warning us that something is poisonous), but eventually we grow to accept and even love bitter tastes, like coffee. Studies have shown that even children with extremely restrictive diets can be persuaded to include no-go foods in their diet by giving them pea-sized portions of different foods outside mealtimes. Timing is crucial. Mealtimes are often perceived as a battle zone by children and their parents, making them unpleasant for all concerned. Taking the tasting sessions outside of mealtimes makes the process less stressful and therefore more successful.
Our eating preferences can be affected by our ability to taste or not to taste; whether we are fussy or eat everything; or have autism. Even our nationality can have an impact (which is why, apparently, many foreigners struggle to like salad cream). It has very little to do with our genes and a lot to do with the environment we live in. In these days of rising obesity altering our eating patterns can give food for thought.
First Bite by Bee Wilson (4th Estate, £12.99)
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