We all know how picky young children can be when it comes to trying new foods — especially fruits and vegetables. Neophobia — the fear of trying new things — can be overcome, says Lisa Rapaport, by gettingĀ messy:

Parents who have tried in vain to teach their preschoolers table manners may have a new reason to give up the fight. Playing with food may actually help kids overcome a fear of new flavors and eat a more varied diet, a small study suggests.

Researchers in the U.K. asked a group of kids to search for buried toys in mashed potatoes and jelly and found that the children who were comfortable getting their hands dirty at the table were less likely have a condition known as food neophobia, a fear of tasting new things.


Part of what makes young children averse to trying new foods is related to their textures. Tactile sensitivity appears to be associated with pickiness. Being creative in getting kids to get down and dirty can help open up their minds — and their mouths:

“Parents might think less about pressuring or forcing their children to eat fruits and vegetables, and more about ways to foster fun, curiosity, and exploration,” Myles Faith, a nutrition researcher at Gillings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, said by email.

“They might consider activities where children are ‘food detectives,’ tasting and rating new foods, or even being food critics,” said Faith, who wasn’t involved in the study. “Gardening or even crafts with fruits and vegetables is a practical activity. Caregivers might think less to pressure and more to pleasure, as controlling feeding can backfire.”