Toddlers and Fear of New Foods

a toddler sees parent holding up a piece of pineapple and holds up her hands, looking worried

Believe it or not, your baby may soon be afraid to taste chocolate milk.

One of the reasons parents race to introduce a lot of foods before baby’s first birthday is because after 12 months of age, the fear of new foods sets in hard. If your baby hasn’t gotten familiar with a certain food by then, it can be a much harder sell.

This is because, around 12 to 18 months old, many toddlers move from a phase of intense interest and exploration (I wonder what dad’s shoe tastes like!) into a new phase of food neophobia (fear of new foods).

Some anthropologists believe that food neophobia was baked into our DNA through evolution. They suggest that neophobia would have been a protective response in humanity’s history, since it would make a child less likely to put poisonous items into their mouth if they wandered away from a caregiver.

Regardless, it can be a challenging time. You had a baby who ate almost anything! And now you have a toddler who is skeptical of everything.

Worse, it’s not just new foods that get rejected during this phase. If your toddler realizes they can refuse a food and get something different from you, it can become a game (at best) and spiral down into picky eating.

Food refusal during this phase is not personal and it does not mean that your toddler does not like whatever food is being rejected. Nor does it mean that your toddler won’t eventually enjoy new foods again. It just takes considerably more patience and care in how we serve food and how we respond to food refusal. 

Some tips:

  • Help your toddler see that the food is safe by eating it in front of them.
  • Think of food as an activity. Offer a junior knife to cut their own food, have a “build your own taco” night, etc.
  • Employ sprinkles (cheese, nutritional yeast, hemp seeds) and dips.
  • Lastly, continue to serve new foods, even if you believe your toddler will refuse them. Your child can’t try a new food if it’s not served.

Food neophobia usually passes around 4 or 5 years old. If you’ve been consistent with offering a wide variety of foods and not replacing those foods with something else when your toddler refuses to eat, the phase will pass sooner.

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