Why do children simply like tasty food

How children learn to eat

When it comes to eating, young children are not exactly sensible. They prefer unhealthy foods, from candy bars to french fries. And when it comes to vegetables and fruit, yes, even the sauce with the spaghetti, they give a damn big berth. About 20 to 25% of 4 year old children go so far with their vegetable anorexia that they do none at all Eating vegetables!

From an evolutionary point of view, this is quite a noticeable behavior. Because food was not exactly in abundance for over 99 percent of human history. Children should actually eat what is held in front of their mouth, right?

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In contrast to all other mammals, humans can live in practically all climatic zones (recently even in a small space station). However, he will find a completely different food supply there: in the Arctic, oily fish and seal meat are primarily usable, whereas fruit and vegetables tend to be nil - in summer there are at most a few berries to eat. In contrast, the Amazon basin is teeming with fruits, berries and all sorts of animals. How is it supposed to find its way in this vastly different food environment? After all, the offerings found contain not only nourishing things - but also incompatible, even poisonous. And that can look a lot like a blueberry and a deadly nightshade.

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The typical mammalian strategy is ruled out with this diverse and extremely different offer: in the case of animals, the menu is more or less firmly programmed into the genetic makeup. So they instinctively know what to eat and what not to eat (the panda bear, for example, has only one entry in the genetic list: bamboo ... - this is practical, but it becomes a problem for the bear when the bamboo forests are soon cut down ...).

Clearly, people also have a special program here. Instead of relying on an innate program, he has to learn, which food sources he can use on site. He has to learn to like the "right", that is, nutritious and safe food and to reject the others purposefully. And he must do this without poisoning himself or harming himself in any other way! Quite a complex task!

Innate preferences

After all, people can rely on a few innate guard rails on this path to safe food sources. Even the sense of smell can provide initial information: a putrid smell indicates spoiled food, while a fruity smell indicates fresh food. But above all it helps Sense of taste to roughly sort the food supply: Sweet, protein and fat indicate problem-free, high-energy "survival food" and are therefore preferred. Bitter and sour, on the other hand, are rated critically - after all, they stand for something that is not nutritious, possibly spoiled or even poisonous. Above all, the taste quality "bitter" is rated extremely critically, because bitter substances occur particularly in poisonous food sources. Where something tastes bitter, a toxin is not far away - and this rule should be of particular interest to small people, whose sensitive nerve cells in the brain multiply explosively and whose liver has not yet developed a good detoxification function!

This leads us to an astonishing realization: that children prefer Nutella and French fries to celery stalks and spinach is something special meaningful Background. Those who preferred calorie bombs got better through the next time of need. And the critical look at vegetables - which always taste bitter for the sensitive children's tongues - did not develop out of defiance of the parents, but as a precautionary measure in an environment laden with poisonous plants!

The fear of something new

And there is another influence that shapes the food preferences of all children around the world - and which drives parents to despair quite reliably: avoiding previously unknown foods. Many parents also know this as Neophobia (Fear of new things) described phenomenon all too well. As long as Marie was a baby, she was proud to report how many foods she tried: pesto, pieces of olives, tomato sauce ... As a toddler, the same creature is hardly recognizable: don't even bring a vegetable molecule near the pasta!

The time course of neophobia is roughly the same in all children: it is least pronounced between four and six months - most infants at this age try practically everything that is offered to them. At the age of two, the selection horizon gradually narrows, the gaze becomes more and more critical, the mouth opens more and more hesitantly. In the late childhood and kindergarten age, the skepticism towards new things has reached its maximum: then there are a lot of children really bad eaters and often completely reject new, complex or possibly bitter-tasting foods. Only when they reach school age do the children become braver again, and between the ages of eight and twelve the electoral horizon expands to such an extent that the children begin to experiment with previously unthinkable foods such as mushrooms, stronger cheeses and vegetables such as broccoli.

Sensible course

The temporal course of neophobia can be explained in terms of evolutionary biology as follows: While the child is still colonizing the lap of its parents, it should not be very choosy - after all, the mother (or other sensible adult) ensures that what the child gets to eat, too for sure is. Nobody would think of inserting a deadly nightshade into their little mouth instead of a blueberry ...

Quite different when the child can explore the environment on their own two feet. What comes into the mouth from now on is no longer under the control of the parents. Instead of the parents, the natural narrowing of the choice and taste horizon ensures survival. Everything that is unknown is stubbornly avoided - especially if it is also green or tastes bitter. Only when the child's organs are more mature (i.e. less susceptible to toxins) and when the choice of food is secured through social learning can the horizon of taste and choice open up again. In fact, it can be shown that the taste receptors for bitter substances on the tongue increase significantly in number from the age of two - from now on, bitter things are perceived as significantly more "bitter".

social learning

So much for the compass that at least once points our children in the right direction and helps them to prefer "safe" sources of food. But what exactly ends up long term on your menu? How do you adapt to the very different offerings on site?

The answer is: through role models and through Getting used to. Experiments show that small children who initially reject a food then accept it after all if they encounter it again and again (under very specific circumstances, which we will look at in a moment). In some studies, the children only act after they have observed the consumption of a certain food 8 to 15 times!

This shows how important role models when trying, and thus are in the development of the child's taste. The child at the table often spontaneously reaches for what the mother wants to put in his mouth. Studies confirm this: One to four year olds try a new food twice as often if a friendly adult takes it first! And also when they see others, especially siblings, eating to like, rather grab it.

The emotional context is very important here: As experiments show, children only imitate the eating behavior of others when they are told by the respective person familiar is and when the situation is with positive feelings connected is. Stress, resentment and compulsion prevent self-motivated trying and lead to a solidification of the rejection. For this reason, persuasion and standard tricks like the “tasting spoon” should not be exaggerated. At the table, it should be about enjoying together, and not about education. Rewards for “healthy” food, which are now part of the normal program in some kindergartens (a sticker for a nice portion of green, every sticker not only pleases the child, but also the concerned parents ...) should therefore be critically examined. Because yes, according to a current study, they actually seem to “work” in the short term, the little ones push a few grams more greenery behind their teeth. However, the question then also has to be asked whether children should really learn to adjust their eating behavior to external rewards. In addition, it is not known whether the children can then transfer the desired behavior to other social contexts (eating at home or with playmates) and what will become of this trained number in the long term.

The danger is not a vitamin deficiency, but an eating disorder

From a pediatrician point of view, it is clear that even children who have “vegetable weakness” or even “vegetable break” for months or years will grow just as well and are just as healthy as those who do not. The only danger when learning to eat is that such a threat, fear and pressure is built up around the children that a mental eating disorder developed, which basically reflects a relationship disorder in children. In other words, if the child repeatedly experiences distress, stress and fighting relationships around the subject of food, the child cannot use its learning engine when it comes to learning to eat. The main task for parents of particularly sensitive and choosy children is indeed to survive this time in such a way that they do not put any additional obstacles in the way of their children and turn everyday life into a stressful and overwhelming experience on both sides.

On the other hand, enjoyable play and the discovery of food with the other senses (smell, touch, sight) accelerate the habit. As experiments show, food is better accepted when children are allowed to show behavior that is not exactly encouraged in this country, such as sticking in the mouth, sucking and throwing away - tactile experience also seems to be part of "getting to know" food. The same applies to the other forms of participation - children who are allowed to help prepare meals are more likely to get involved in trying it out. An apple that has been cut up with a knife (!) Is much more delicious than an apple face that is beautifully draped on the table by others. The same applies to the selection and the scoop on the plate yourself, children learn the rules surprisingly quickly when the mood is good. Children also want to experience themselves as effective when learning to eat - they only start their exploration engine when they are allowed to sit behind the wheel themselves!

The topic of breastfeeding and complementary food on kind-verhaben.de

The sloppy little ones - viewed positively

Let's summarize: As far as nutrition is concerned, the toddler age is tantamount to a revolution: The child changes from a safe food environment, closely monitored by the mother, into a world full of dangers. Before the hygienic and perfectly tailored breast milk was the staple food, from toddler age the child has to satisfy its hunger in a world in which the nutritious and the inedible often grow side by side. In order to survive in this world, evolution has given the child certain learning rules (see box below).

Of course, these protection programs have become completely superfluous today, when the shelves of the supermarkets are guaranteed to be free of deadly cherries and where we watch over every step of our children in small, lockable apartments - but the body of our children now follows the successful program developed in the jungle, so to speak he has been able to rely on for hundreds of thousands of years.

In fact, the rules described are quite a success story. Because they achieve something that we normally only dream of - they precisely match supply and demand, and that anywhere in the world: Children learn with a few simple rules to like exactly what is in the village, in the camp or in the shop around the corner!

But the best thing about this over-cautious tutorial is this: it has a Expiration date and at some point overrides itself. The more the organs mature and the more children have learned about their world, the more the fear of new foods subsides. The "lanky" tooth becomes bolder, and when the children have finished waxing, they end up eating their vegetables.

Eating - the 5 learning rules of evolution

  • Prefer "survival food" - the sweet, energy-dense "favorite foods" that are not only safe, but also fill you up well.
  • Just eat what you know. Above all, beware of bitter things. After all, there could be large amounts of toxins in them.
  • When you need to eat something new, use very little of it at first.
  • Eat what your parents and siblings like - you'll always be right.
  • Don't eat again what has already upset your stomach.

Or, in short: the fact that toddlers are bad once was good for their survival!


This article is based on the book by the pediatrician and scientist Dr. Herbert Renz-Polster: “Children understand. Born to be wild - how evolution shapes our children ". It describes the development of children from the perspective of evolutionary behavioral research.