The low-down on “food neophobia” – a fear of new foods


Do you often find yourself puzzled by your child's eating habits, wondering why they are so hesitant to try new foods? If so, you've probably encountered the term "neophobia." In this blog post, we'll delve into the meaning of "neophobia", explore what it looks like and why it happens. Plus, we’ll share some ideas of how you can respond to help your child overcome this fear of new foods.

What is food neophobia?

First things first, let's break down what "food neophobia" means. The term itself provides a clue: "neo" signifies new, and "phobia" indicates fear. Essentially, food neophobia is the fear or avoidance of new foods - a big part of what we call “fussy” or “picky” eating! So, if you’ve noticed some telltale signs like reluctance to try anything new, visible anxiety when encouraged to taste foods, or a heightened sensitivity to any changes in the appearance of their food, then this may be neophobia you’re witnessing!

What age does it occur?

Food neophobia typically begins to surface between the ages of 1 and 2, often becoming noticeable around 18 months, although it varies from child to child. This phase coincides with the tumultuous toddler years when children are rapidly exploring their identities, acquiring physical skills, adapting to new routines, and asserting their independence. As for when it ends, many children gradually overcome food neophobia and expand their diets by around age 6. But in some cases, it can persist into childhood, particularly if there are other underlying factors at play, or if patterns develop in the family that unintentionally reinforces the avoidance of new foods. Understanding these dynamics is a critical step to navigate your child’s food neophobia journey.
Why does it happen?

Research suggests that genetics play a significant role in the development of food neophobia, with about two-thirds of the variation in neophobia attributed to genetics, even more so than fussy eating. So, if you've noticed familial traits in your child's eating habits or see similarities between your child's preferences and Aunt Jane or Uncle Bob, it's probably not just your imagination.

The evolutionary theory behind neophobia suggests that it may have developed as a safety mechanism to protect toddlers from consuming potentially poisonous plants in the wild, a concept that remains relevant today. If they stumbled upon an unfamiliar plant, it was probably a smart move to steer clear of it. So, it makes sense that this fear of new foods typically emerges during toddlerhood when children begin to explore independently.

While this evolutionary theory is part of the picture, there’s more to the story at this stage of development! Other factors come into play, such as changes in a toddler's growth rate, developing identity, and the natural progression of expressing preferences as they mature. The most important thing to understand, which is something that most parents question - is that it’s not your fault!

How can I spot it?

Wondering what food neophobia looks like in your child? Picture this: around 18 months, you might notice a shift in their food preferences, with a strong inclination toward the same foods on repeat. They might shy away from trying anything new, even turning their nose up at unfamiliar offerings. Asking them to try something may be met with visible anxiety or reluctance. You might also notice more negative comments about foods pop up like “That’s disgusting!” or “Yuck, I’m not eating that!”.

But how can you tell if it's food neophobia or something else? Take a moment to consider their overall well-being, behaviours, skills, and traits beyond mealtimes. If they're grappling with fears in various areas or sensory sensitivities away from eating, then their changes in food preferences may point to more generalised anxiety or sensory processing differences. If you’re worried, ruling out any medical causes with a doctor can be a good idea, to make sure that there isn’t any illness or medical condition affecting their appetite and interest in food. On the flip side, if everything else seems fine and yet you're witnessing newfound food skepticism, then it’s quite likely that you’re looking at food neophobia!

What can I do?

To help move past food neophobia, or at least prevent it from escalating into a more profound feeding challenge, start by serving a couple of familiar foods at each meal and snack, even if your child’s preferences seem unpredictable.
Avoid getting alternative foods during or after a refused meal - although this can feel hard in the moment, especially if your child is upset or insisting that they’re hungry, offering alternatives can quickly result in more food refusal the next time. Soon, you may find that multiple foods that were previously accepted have been dropped in place of easier or more preferred foods.
Eating together regularly, and calmly exposing your child to new foods on the table can gradually reduce their hesitancy. You don’t need to try to draw their attention towards the food, or get them to taste it. Simply having it there is a pressure-free exposure and you can trust your child to approach it when they are ready.
Finally, resist the urge to pressure or persuade your child to eat something new, as it may exacerbate their anxiety. When you feel the instinct to say “Come on, please try it, you have to eat something!” remind yourself to say the opposite “That’s fine, you don’t have to eat anything if you don’t want to”. Reducing any expectation on your child’s eating can help open up their internal motivation and curiosity!

For more ideas on how to respond to neophobia, check out our blog here


We know that food neophobia can be a puzzling challenge for parents, and is often an unexpected hurdle for families. Understanding its origins and how it manifests is the first step towards helping your child on a journey towards more confident and curious eating. This scepticism around new foods coincides with many developmental changes when it comes to growth rate, independence, physical, and social development, and we know from research studies that genetics also plays an important role. While it’s your natural instinct to intervene, it’s essential to avoid pressuring or persuading your child to try new foods. Instead, focus on serving some familiar foods at every meal and snack, eating a variety of foods yourself, and eating together regularly. You can only create a supportive, relaxed and positive environment. Then, it comes down to trusting your child’s development and letting them explore at the pace that feels right to them. Remember that it’s something many other families are going through too, and the changes in your child’s food preferences are not your fault!

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