The ultimate guide to getting your child to try new foods without the battle
If you have kids, you’re likely struggling to get a picky eater to try new foods. And you’re definitely not alone -up to 1/2 of kids experience some type of picky eating.
Maybe you’ve become a short-order cook. And you may feel like you have to bribe, pressure or reward your child to try even one bite of dinner. All of this just leads to stress at the table for everyone. And often arguments and tears (on behalf of the kids and parents!).
Wouldn’t it be amazing to stop stressing about how much or what your kids eat at the table? Have more peaceful dinners, with no more tears or yelling at the dinner table? And for your kids to eat nutritious food without complaining about it!?
As a dietitian and a mom of 3 myself, I’ve created this ultimate guide to teaching your picky eater to try new foods. We’ll cover why your child might be picky, your roles and their roles in feeding and talk about food play and therapy. Here we go!
Figure out why your child is a picky eater
The first step is to figure out why your child is a fussy eater. If there is an underlying physical cause that isn’t dealt with, then behavioural interventions will have very limited success.
- Developmental stage
The first reason your child might be a picky eater is their normal developmental stage. Generally around 18 months, children start to develop more of a sense of independence.
They practice saying “no.” They want to do things on their own. And whether or not they eat is one of the few things that a toddler has control over.
After a year, their growth slows down too. If you’ve seen the growth chart, you’ll know that in the first year it’s quite a steep incline and then it tends to level off quite a bit after a year.
So, the rate of growth slows down and they actually don’t need as many calories per kilogram body weight anymore. This leads to a decreased appetite. So your 18-month old may eat less than when they were ten months old. That worries parents, but it’s normal.
Food neophobia (or fear of new foods) can kick in as well. This was possibly a protective mechanism a long time ago, to protect against poisoning.
Another thing that can affect picky eating is genetics. If you were a picky eater or the other parent was a picky eater, there’s a good likelihood that your child will be a picky eater.
This doesn’t tend to be something that we screen our potential partners for! And maybe it’s a bit of payback for your parents, for the grief you gave them! But it can also provide some needed empathy for your child if you know it’s truly tough for them to try new things.
- Oral motor weakness:
Your child may physically have difficulty moving food around in their mouth, due to a weak bite, tongue or cheek muscles. Or maybe they have a tongue tie that wasn’t addressed.
l cover some many red flags this might be a concern in my End Picky Eating course. But one simple warning sign is that your child avoids meat and hard fruit or veggies as they’re harder to eat. The good news is that there are exercises to improve oral motor control if this is a concern.
- Sensory Sensitivity
Eating is the most difficult sensory activity we do. We have 8 different sensory systems:
People can be over-responsive (extra sensitive…called sensory avoiders) or under-responsive (less sensitive…called sensory seekers) in one or more of these senses.
For example, a child who is touch over-responsive may prefer certain food textures (usually crunchy) & “pre-chewed” (processed) foods. A young child may finger splay when they touch a wet/slimy texture, they will like to wipe clean and prefers eating with utensils.
For more signs your child is over or under-responsive in one or more of these senses, check out my short TikTok video here.
Again, some more good news is that there are sensory exercises that can be done to decrease sensory sensitivity, which I’ll discuss more later in this blog.
- Physical pain:
Another reason why your child may not eat much is it hurts. Therefore they become conditioned not to eat. There are a number of reasons for this:
- Reflux: when stomach acid comes back up into the esophagus and throat after eating.
- Food allergies
- Cavities in their teeth
- Nutrient deficiencies:
Your child could be deficient in nutrients that can affect appetite. Like iron or zinc. Low iron is a fairly common one and occurs in about 10% of kids. This can lead to both slow growth and a low appetite, which tends to be a negative cycle.
- A broken division of responsibility
The final (and most common) reason that your child is picky is behavioural. And it may be behavioural on your part. Which is actually good news! Because once you know that your actions may be making the situation worse, you can change.
In Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in feeding, caregivers have certain roles in feeding, and children have certain roles in eating. And if you’re able to follow these roles, your children will be less likely to be picky eaters and less likely to struggle with disordered eating.
I’ll break it down a bit more next…first, if you’d like to register for my free webinar called “How to teach kids to try new foods without yelling, tricking or bribing” click here.
Stop short-order cook syndrome: What your child is offered
When it comes to feeding kids and following the Division of Responsibility, we are to be responsible for what foods are offered. However, this often turns into a rule that the child is allowed to control.
Short-order cook syndrome happens when you present your child with dinner and they don’t want to eat it and you make their backup food or their favourite food. Or you’re already stuck making two meals, to begin with, because you know your child is not going to eat your food.
And I can see it happening even from starting solids when mom brings out a banana after the child doesn’t eat dinner. Because bananas are the favourite and they know baby is always going to eat a banana. And that quickly turns into a toddler who only eats chicken fingers and fries.
And a reason why this happens is largely that they know they can get away with it. Why would they branch out and try any new foods if they know that they can get Kraft Dinner?
I know as a parent why you do this….you’re worried that your child is not going to get enough calories, not enough nutrients, that they’re not going to grow to their potential if you don’t make the food they will actually eat. Or that they’ll wake up hungry!
But your role is to offer what the child eats, and not to be that short-order cook. It’s too much work for you to have those battles, to make separate meals, especially if you have more than one kid, right? It really perpetuates picky eating, and you don’t need to do it.
But I hear you….”If I don’t cater to my child, he will starve….”
So what can we do to still offer family meals but make sure your kid doesn’t go hungry?
Always offer a familiar food
One way to avoid your child going to bed hungry is to always have at least one food on the table that your child can comfortably eat. Some people call this “safe” food.
Then if your child is truly hungry and really anxious about branching out and trying new foods, they can have at least something that they can eat without going hungry.
Often a “safe” food is a glass of milk and a carbohydrate. Because these foods are soft, they’re easy to eat, they’re fairly plain. So if you’re having pasta with meat sauce and a salad, the familiar food might just be the plain pasta.
If you’re having meats and veggies, maybe offer buns with butter as the familiar food. For other kids, maybe they like cucumber, so you have some sliced cucumber on the table. This food is served to the whole family, not just special for the child.
Again, I hear you……” but my child will only eat the buns….how can he live on just buns?!” Well, it’s your choice what foods are offered, so rotate through their safe foods for more variety.
And a child that is comfortable at the table and isn’t pressured to eat, will be more likely to branch out and try new foods of their own free will. And so I ask you…..” what’s an alternative that works better?”
Make food easier to eat.
We can also consider our child’s preferences and skills at the table, without totally catering to them. Meat and vegetables are often foods that are refused by kids. They’re not the tastiest and are more difficult to eat in terms of oral motor skills (as they’re so hard).
Here are a few tips to make these food groups more appealing:
Tips to make MEAT easier to eat:
– slow cook or pressure cook, so it’s tender
– ground meat is also tender (meatballs, meatloaf, meat sauce)
– add sauce to make it more flavourful and tender (ex. BBQ sauce)
– try a crispy coating like chicken or fish fingers (easy to grab & sensory kiddos like a crunchy coating)
– dips are ok (ex. ketchup)
Tips to make VEGGIES easier to eat:
– try veggies cut shaped like a chip or fry (use a mandolin to make ‘chips’: sweet potato, parsnip, beet)
– roast veggies, to bring out the sweetness
– try raw, frozen, cooked to mushy, mashed, lots of different forms. Freeze-dried or frozen are often easiest to eat if your child is sensory sensitive (the texture doesn’t change as much as fresh)
– serve with dips to add flavour (hummus, yogurt dip or Ranch)
– serve veggies when hungriest (ex as an ‘appetizer’ or after school)
Get a supportive seat: Where your child eats
Back to the Division of Responsibility. Another one of your roles is where your child eats. Ideally, we want this to be at the family table in a supportive seat. It’s a great thing to start family meals as young as you can, right from the start.
I know everybody’s family situation is different. Maybe you’re a single parent or your partner works away, so you can’t have the whole family around for each dinner. Even if it’s just you and your child or your children, or at breakfast or lunch…..that counts too.
There are great benefits of the family meal as your child gets older. Adolescents who have family meals a couple of times a week not only get better nutrition, but they do better in school and they’re less likely to be involved in risky activities like drugs and have better self-esteem. So start early!
For the little ones, another benefit of eating at the table is it’s safer. There are lots of kids that eat running around or in the car, and it really does take all of our muscles to chew and swallow and eat. And it’s a choking hazard, so it can be dangerous if they’re running around eating.
Also, you are being a role model for them especially if they have oral motor challenges. They watch you and learn how to eat! And the more your kids see you eat different foods, the more comfortable they will get with trying these foods themselves.
In terms of chairs, ideally, we want the child to be seated at the table with the tray or the table between their nipple height and their belly button. And their feet supported. Not only does supported feet decrease the distraction of swinging legs, but it also helps support the whole body and makes chewing and eating much easier.
Stop the constant snacking: When your child eats
Your final role in the division of responsibility is when your child eats. This includes more structured meal and snack times rather than your child running around constantly snacking.
It’s very common, especially for picky eaters or small children for the parents wanting them to get as much as they can throughout the day. So they tend to follow the kids around with snacks. And they have a bite here and a bite there.
But the problem with this is your child never experiences hunger or fullness. That little bit here and there just takes the edge off their appetite and when they come to a table for a meal, they’re really not hungry. And it’s also very bad for their teeth to constantly snack throughout the day.
So what I would like you to try is a “Kitchen is Closed” rule. Between meal and snack times, if your child comes to you and asks for a snack, you can just say, “The kitchen is closed.” They can have water between meals but nothing else (including milk).
And the amount of time between snacks and meals will depend on your child. We want them to get to the point where they do have a bit of an appetite come meal or snack, but they’re not at the point where they’re meltdown hangry.
For a lot of kids about two to three hours between eating, will be appropriate for them. As they get older, maybe upper elementary, they can probably go three to four hours. But that really depends on your child. I know I like to eat every two or three hours too, so I wouldn’t expect my kids to go five hours between meals.
An example schedule could be:
- breakfast around 7:30 AM
- mid-morning snack around 10:00 AM
- lunch around 12:30
- snack 3:00
- dinner 5:30
- optional snack at around 7:30pm
Whether you offer an evening snack depends on when you ate dinner and when your child goes to bed. Ellyn Satter calls this the evening snack the “rescue snack.” It can be served regardless of whether dinner was eaten.
Bedtime snack doesn’t have to be reserved dinner but doesn’t have to be your child’s favourite either. Make it boring but nutritious. You don’t have to be worried if your child is having toast with peanut butter or cereal and milk for a snack, right? They can still get nutrients from that and have a little bit in their tummy before they go to bed.
Your child’s roles: If/ How Much they eat
Your child’s only job is to determine how much to eat of the foods you’ve offered them at the meal/snack time. Without you begging, asking, bribing, rewarding…..
The vast majority of parents use pressure, which can take a lot of different forms you may not even recognize. Ask yourself at the table: “why am I saying this to my child?” If it is to get them to eat more or something than they would choose to on their own, it’s pressure.
Pressure can include:
- Praise: “I’m proud of you for trying that new fruit,” clapping, sticker chart, “what a big boy or girl.” We don’t want our kids to eat for approval. We want them to eat because they’re hungry/
- Guilt: “I made this just for you, you know I put a lot of work into it, it makes me sad that you won’t even try it,” “your big brother’s eating it” or “you’ve eaten this before.”
- Bribes: candy, stickers, extra video game time, or dessert only after eating a certain food or certain amount. What these bribes are essentially telling your child, is that the food they have to eat is yucky and puts the dessert/bribe on a pedestal. And the bribe becomes even more desirable, which is not our desired outcome.
- Some feeding therapy: Some non-responsive feeding therapy methods like Applied Behaviour Analysis can use forceful feeding tactics. Like forcing the child to kiss, lick or taste a food. Or “non-removal” of the spoon. Sounds like abuse to me and certainly doesn’t encourage anyone to enjoy eating.
- Nutrition education: “Popeye ate spinach, he’s strong” “this is good for you.” Or “you need more protein.” A lot of the time these messages go over your kid’s head and can be harmful.
Many research studies show that higher pressure to eat leads to lower levels of child intake and weight, and higher levels of pickiness. So essentially it totally backfires. And makes meals unpleasant for everyone. It takes practice, but try your best to stop!
Food play and feeding therapy
To review so far….implementing the division of responsibility is the basis for any child and family. Now if your child has sensory or oral motor issues, there are other activities that can be done that will help them expand their food selection.
It’s important to make any food play or exercises fun and pressure-free. It can help to work with an occupational therapist specializing in feeding or a therapist trained in the Sequential Oral Sensory method (SOS) or food chaining to implement feeding therapy and/or a food play plan at home.
In SOS therapy, the child is presented with a piece of food, one at a time to play with for a few minutes. All foods are linked by sensory properties and activities help work them up the steps. Starting with the ability to just be present with food, to interacting with it to smelling, touching, tasting and eating it. Here’s an example of what SOS feeding therapy can look like.
But you can start easily at home with many different food play activities that aren’t “therapy.” And will still help your kids desensitize to different textures. This will help them when they come to the table to try new foods.
Here are some food play ideas:
Start with dryer textures like dry pasta and move up to wetter ones like cooked pasta. If you can get their whole body involved, even better. Add shaving foam into an empty bathtub to play! And walk around on grass and sand barefoot in the summer. There are a ton of great ideas on Pinterest.
Cook with your child.
This gives them a sense of pride and ownership in the food. Your child will be more likely to expand and try a new food that they had a hand in making.
A lot of children don’t like the feel of certain textures or getting messy if they’re sensory sensitive. But cooking with your child gives them exposure to different foods that they typically avoid at mealtime. But it’s not a meal time…..so there’s no pressure to eat and they are just creating the foods.
As with messy play, cooking gives your child extra exposure, and they may be more willing to even touch these ingredients that they normally wouldn’t at the table.
Some ideas to get kids in the kitchen:
- gather the ingredients out of the fridge and pantry for a recipe,
- gather the spoons, the bowls, the measuring cups,
- add toppings to a pizza,
- stir muffin batter or whisk eggs,
- washing fruits and vegetables.
Elementary and up:
- reading the recipes,
- peel fruits and veggies,
- shred cheese,
- start cutting a safe knife like Foost first Knives (save 10% off if you use my affiliate link: https://foost.com.au/ref/74/)
- stirring soup and sauces while on the stove, with supervision.
Take your kids shopping.
Ok, I don’t like to take my kids to the grocery store. I’m not going to lie to you there. It’s definitely extra work, whining, and complaining. But I do take them to the grocery store occasionally. And another great place to take them is a farmer’s market.
There is lots to learn here. And get them to help out: “Please go get me green pepper. Or “Why don’t you pick out a new vegetable to try?”
If you are at the farmer’s market, it’s a great chance to look at some new things. Often there are samples that they can try. Or talk to the farmers about how their food was grown!
Grow your own food:
Another awesome thing you can do is try growing food at home. Even if you have a little window sill garden or in the summer out on the deck, you can grow herbs or tomatoes. Nothing tastes better than those little cherry or grape tomatoes that you can grow on the deck.
Getting your child to touch different textures and play with food in a space where they’re not going to be eating it, will further help decrease “tactile defensiveness”.
- Finger paint or use brushes to paint with things like pudding or yogurts.
- Crumble crumbs of crackers or cookies, and glue them onto paper to make a picture.
- Some fruits and veggies can be used for painting: take a beet or potato and cut it in half, cut a little shape out of it, dip it in paint.
- Glue macaroni onto a piece of paper.
- Building and decorating a gingerbread house.
Conclusion – how to get a picky eater to try new foods
How to get a child to eat when they refuse?
Make sure there’s no underlying physical cause for the picky eating
Follow your roles in the division of responsibility and trust your child to follow theirs.
Add in sensory food play and lots of different fun exposures
What to do next? If you want more free tips for picky eaters register for my free training called “How to teach kids to try new foods without yelling, tricking or bribing.”