Development of food acceptance patterns in the first years of life

Proc Nutr Soc. 1998 Nov;57(4):617-24. doi: 10.1079/pns19980090.


As young omnivores, children make the transition from the exclusive milk diet of infancy to consuming a variety of foods. They must learn to accept a set of the foods available in their environmental niche, and they 'come equipped' with a set of predispositions that facilitate the development of food acceptance patterns, constrained by predisposition and limited by what is offered to them. While children are predisposed to like sweet or salty foods and to avoid sour or bitter foods, their preferences for the majority of foods are shaped by repeated experience. The predispositions that shape food acceptance patterns also include neophobia and the predisposition to learn to prefer and accept new foods when they are offered repeatedly. In addition, the predisposition for associative conditioning affects children's developing food acceptance patterns, resulting in preferences for foods offered in positive contexts, while foods presented in negative contexts will become more disliked via the learning of associations with the social and environmental contexts. Children also learn to prefer energy-dense foods when consumption of those foods is followed by positive post-ingestive consequences, such as those produced when high-energy-density foods are eaten when hungry. Although children are predisposed to be responsive to the energy content of foods in controlling their intake, they are also responsive to parents' control attempts. We have seen that these parental control attempts can refocus the child away from responsiveness to internal cues of hunger and satiety and towards external factors such as the presence of palatable foods. This analysis suggests that taking a closer look at what children are learning about food and eating may provide clues regarding the formation of children's food acceptance patterns, and that this approach also suggests potential causative factors implicated in the aetiology of obesity and the emergence of weight concerns. Current data, although limited, suggest that child-feeding practices play a causal role in the development of individual difference in the controls of food intake, and perhaps in the aetiology of problems of energy balance, especially childhood obesity. These relationships should be pursued in future research.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Body Composition
  • Child
  • Child Nutritional Physiological Phenomena*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Energy Intake
  • Feeding Behavior*
  • Food Preferences*
  • Health Education
  • Humans
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Obesity / etiology