, Volume 5, Issue 3, pp 279-291

A sensitive period for learning about food

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It is proposed here that there is a sensitive period in the first two to three years of life during which humans acquire a basic knowledge of what foods are safe to eat. In support of this, it is shown that willingness to eat a wide variety of foods is greatest between the ages of one and two years, and then declines to low levels by age four. These data also show that children who are introduced to solids unusually late have a narrower diet breadth throughout childhood, perhaps because the duration of the sensitive period has been shortened. By reducing the costs associated with learning, a sensitive period for food learning should be adaptive for any omnivore (including early humans) that remains in the same environment throughout its life.

The data were collected with the assistance of faculty and parents from Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School, the Jewish Community Center of Salt Lake City, and the University of Utah Child and Family Development Center.
Elizabeth Cashdan is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Utah. In addition to the evolution of food learning, she is interested in hunter-gatherer ecology, human reproductive strategies, and the endocrine correlates of dominance in women. She has worked with foragers and farmers in Botswana and with children and adults in Salt Lake City.