Thoughts on Reading Jane Kauer’s PhD
A feeling common to many picky eaters is that whole swathes of items considered by the rest of the population to be foods just don’t seem like food to us. I know that almost everyone else in the world would count an apple as a food, but to me, you might as well ask me to eat a brick, or a blanket, or a plank of wood. This is what I’m up against.
Being omnivores, humans need to learn a great deal about what is a) edible, b) safe and c) socio-culturally acceptable. This learning process begins at the point of switching from a milk-based diet to solid foods. Apparently, young children first being weaned are fairly accepting of new foods. As they mature, however (around the age of 2 years) they become more conservative in their food selections (Satter, 1990). In the USA (for that is where the research has been done), children under the age of two will put virtually anything in their mouths. Over the age of two however, children apparently start to distinguish between food and non-food categories, though they don’t assign the value of “inappropriate” until over the age of five years (Rozin et al., 1986b).
So is it appropriate to say that picky eaters have an over-extended “non-food” category, and an underextended “food” category? Over- and underextension are very common patterns in the development of children’s categories (check Stephen Pinker’s Blank Slate if you’re interested). In ordinary circumstances, however, children’s assignment of items to the food/non-food categories is informed by sensory information, observed behaviour of others and explicit learning, and will generally develop into something approximating the patterns of assignment of their cultural environment. Why did this not happen for us?
An additional factor in making distinctions between food and non-food items, according to Jane Kauer, is “beliefs about the food itself”. There does exist research on how children categorise objects according to their edibility – Rozin et al. (1984, 1986a, 1986b) – but I have yet to ascertain what these “beliefs” might be, or how they might be influenced and applied.
In terms of socio-cultural influences on children’s food selection, it appears that while adult demonstrating behaviour may be effective, it is peer behaviour that has the stronger influence (Hendy et al., 2000). If most of us had “normal” peers, why then was their influence not effective?
Another point to note is that picky eating in childhood, while perfectly common, is of concern to medical professionals because of the stress it may place on the parent-child relationship (Satter, 1990). Could it be that it was this stress that diverted us from growing out of this fairly normal developmental phase?
Hendy, H.M., & Raudenbush, B. (2000). Effectiveness of teacher modelling to encourage food acceptance in pre-school children. Appetite 34, 61-76.
Rozin, P., Fallon, A., & Augustoni-Ziskind, M. (1986a). The child’s conception of food: The development of categories of acceptable and rejected substance. Journal of Nutrition, 18, 75-81.
Rozin, P., Hammer, L., Oster, H., Horowitz, T., & Marmora, V. (1986b). The child’s conception of food: Differentiation of categories of rejected substances in the 16 months to 5 year range. Appetite, 7, 141-151.
Satter, E. (1990). The feeding relationship: problems and interventions. Journal of Paediatrics, 117, S181-S189.