Food by VICE

Playing with Food Can Make You Less of a Picky Eater

A new study shows that touching and playing with food can help young children overcome fear of new flavours and eat a more varied diet.

by Phoebe Hurst
May 21 2015, 2:00pm

No matter how far you relocate from your hometown or how fancy you are with your matching Habitat dining set now, nothing can excuse your attendance at The Family Meal.

Maybe you're on a weekly Sunday roast rota or you've got a strict once-a-year-and-only-at-Christmas deal going on with your parents, but it's impossible not to find yourself knocking familial knees around the kitchen table at least every once in a while.

And, like your brother's infuriating soup-slurping habit, those age old old table manners stay the same: No elbows on the table, no phones, and no playing with your food.

READ MORE: I Infiltrated the Online Community of Adult Picky Eaters

But get this, Mum, new research shows that playing with your food might actually be a good thing (still waiting for the report back on whether texting and eating with your mouth open can benefit digestion, though).

According to a study from De Montfort University, playing with food substances can help young children to overcome the fear of new flavours and eat a more varied diet.

Published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the research saw a group of children use their hands to search for a toy soldier buried in mashed potato and jelly. The children were then rated on a scale of one to five on how happy they appeared to be with this type of play.

Researchers also questioned the children's parents on how likely their offspring were to try new foods, as well as their level of "tactile sensitivity" or willingness to enjoy sensory experiences like walking barefoot in sand.

Unsurprisingly, results showed that the children happy to get elbow-deep in jelly were less likely to suffer from neophobia, or the fear or trying new foods.

"We believe that some people have higher levels of sensory sensitivity than others at birth across different sensory domains—smell, touch, sight," explains lead study author and senior psychology lecturer Dr Helen Coulthard. "To these individuals, the world can be over stimulating and intense; this is very common in individuals on the autistic spectrum. So for example, the feel of certain fabrics or the sound of a hoover can seem aversive."

A small number of people carry such neophobic tendencies on into later life (as demonstrated in the online "Adult Picky Eater" community) but most children do not experience increased tactile sensitivity for long.

"Neophobia is generally an adaptive response which occurs after 18 months and is believed to prevent the newly mobile child being poisoned. However, when taken to the extreme, it can severely restrict the variety of healthful foods consumed," says Coulthard. "For children, this means eating a more narrow range of fruits and vegetables. For adults, proteins are more likely to be rejected."

While the university is carrying out further research to explore whether engaging children in games surrounding food can help overcome neophobic responses, Coulthard's study suggests that the link between the touch of substances on our hands and our mouths may be stronger than previously thought.

"It makes sense," says Coulthard. "The disgust response (i.e., spitting a food out) is often based on textural properties like mushy or slimy, and can be an indication that food is rotten."

READ MORE: Vegetarian Children Are a Complicated Breed of Eaters

Despite proving that scientific discovery can come from breaching food etiquette, Coulthard is still an advocate of table manners.

"Not playing with your food is a rule based on minimising waste and mess so it is perfectly understandable that parents don't want a full food fight every mealtime," she says. "However, giving children food to hold and eat develops their tactile processing. Also giving them opportunities to get messy using low-cost substances like flour and water will give them fun, sensory experiences."

So next time a family member berates you for pushing a soggy roast potato around your plate, explain that you're engaging in an important sensory experience.

De Montfort University
Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Helen Coulthard
adult picky eater
mashed potato