8 tips to help your picky eater try new foods

1. Eating should be a fun, positive, and social experience

Children learn best by watching others and imitating. Show your little one how much you love food by eating with them. Sometimes nothing is more appealing to a child than what is on their parent’s plate! To keep mealtime fun and interactive, play music and bring mealtime related toys to the table. Encourage your child to feed their favorite toy, a puppet or Milton the Mealtime Companion. Prepare meals with cookie cutters and serve food with fun utensils and skewers.

2. Do not pressure, shame, threaten or bribe

It is frustrating when your child refuses to eat, but do your best to avoid a power struggle. Childhood food fears are not something you can rationalize, threaten, or bribe away. Many little ones want to try new foods but they are anxious about it. Applying pressure to the situation will only increase their anxiety and reinforce negative feelings about food. 

3. A little empathy goes a long way 

Imagine you are on vacation visiting a remote village and they offer you some earthworm jerky for lunch. How would you feel if they pressured you to eat it and wouldn’t let you leave the room until you took a bite? Would it help if they got angry? Probably not. Even though you may love chicken, your child may feel like it is earthworm jerky.  

4. Play with food! 

You can make food a little less scary by taking the focus off eating and make the experience about exploration and fun. Cook with your child or sign them up for a cooking class. Play with food. Finger paint with purees, build towers out of cheese cubes or make an elephant nose out of a carrot sticks. Once your child is engaging with the new food through cooking or play, they may be more open to smelling it or licking it off their fingers. For some fun ways to play with vegetables check out Adventures in Veggieland by Melanie Potock MA CCC-SLP. 

5. Use language other than “bite and chew”

Taking a bite out of a non-preferred food is a tall order. Remember that earthworm jerky? Reduce the task to something easier and more playful. Use phrases like give it a kiss, balance it with your teeth, hug it with your teeth and mash it up. This will increase the likelihood that your child will be successful. Maybe they won’t eat the broccoli but they might be able to give it a kiss. Next month they might balance it on their teeth and the following month they might mash it up in their mouth.

6. New foods should be similar to preferred foods  

When expanding your child’s food repertoire, start with a food they like and change it ever so slightly. Change the temperature, delivery method, shape, color, taste or texture. For example, if your child loves pouches, offer it on a spoon or bowl. If they love white cheddar, offer some orange cheddar. If they love fried french fries, try oven baked fries. If they love crunchy carbs, try crunchy freeze dried fruits and vegetables. If their PB&J sandwich is usually prepared in a square, try a heart or triangle. Be sure you only change one quality at a time, so you don’t overwhelm them with novelty. For more information about food chaining check out, Food Chaining: The Proven 6-Step Plan to Stop Picky Eating, Solve Feeding Problems, and Expand Your Child’s Diet by Cheri Fraker and Mark Fishbein. Another great book is Helping Your Child With Extreme Picky Eating by Katja Rowell MD and Jenny McGlothlin MS CCC-SLP.

7. Get creative with your recipes

The internet has tons of recipes for incorporating healthy food into kid friendly meals. You can make any food delicious by cooking it into a pancake, muffin or smoothie. One of my favorite recipes is a protein banana pancake. It is a great way to add some protein to your carb-loving picky eaters diet. The pancakes are made out of 2 eggs and 1 ripe banana. Blend the egg and banana together until the batter is smooth and cook it over medium heat on a buttered skillet. 

8. Slow and steady wins the race

There is no quick fix for very picky eaters. Progress is often slow and subtle. At first progress may just look like reduced anxiety around mealtime or tolerating a new food at the table. Then children may become a little more curious about food and may be willing to play with it. Next they may be willing to smell it, rub it on their lips like chapstick or touch it with their tooth etc. There are many steps to take before eating a non-preferred food, so be patient. 

When to seek help: It is completely normal for toddlers to go through a picky eating stage as they demonstrate their independence and control over their environment. Some children, however, will not grow out of it and their fear of food and extreme picky eating can lead to malnutrition.   

Contact a Speech-Language Pathologist or Feeding Specialist if your child exhibits any of the following:

  • Eats less than 20 different foods
  • Tantrums often when presented with new foods
  • Refuses entire categories of age appropriate food textures
  • By 12 months has not weaned from baby food and does not accept table food
  • Parents report that the child is difficult to feed and meals have become a battle zone