If you’ve ever been through a meal with your picky eater where you find yourself begging, bribing, or maybe having a tantrum yourself to get them to just TRY a new food, you’re not alone.
It feels like it should be so simple. But feeding becomes a big source of stress when you have a picky eater.
Picky kids greet new foods with a big dose of skepticism, at the least. And that can continue on even when the food doesn’t feel new at all to you. You could be thinking, it’s one thing when it’s the first time they’ve seen it. Fine. But something you’ve served 10 times? Something they’ve eaten before but claim they don’t like it now?
Isn’t this supposed to get easier at some point?
Unfortunately, for many picky eaters, it doesn’t get easier on its own. They get stuck on the same few foods. And then it just gets harder and harder to break them out of it.
So are you ready to try something new? Read this post for strategies to introduce foods in a way that will work better than bribing, forcing, or begging. And even if they don’t try something new, it’s going to feel a lot better for both you and your kid.
Note: you may need to seek medical help with oral motor or sensory difficulties, severe behavior or mood problems, or other medical conditions that may contribute to picky eating (such as food allergies). When in doubt, reach out to your child’s healthcare provider. This post is not a substitute for medical advice.
5 Steps to Trying New Foods
This process is something I learned from feeding therapists who work with children who are severe picky eaters or have sensory sensitivities, among other conditions. If you’re struggling, you may want to reach out to a feeding therapist to evaluate your child. They should be either an SLP or OT.
Think of this process to try new foods the same way that children learn to swim. You wouldn’t just throw your toddler into the pool by themselves without a flotation device and say, “swim!”. They first have exposures to shallow water, like when you bathe them. And you probably have held them in the water a hundred times before you ever let go. Like swimming, there are many things that we expect to take plenty of time to learn. If your child is picky, EXPECT that it will take a lot of time to try new foods.
For picky eaters, there is a real fear and/or anxiety present. It’s important for us to acknowledge that this is truly hard for them. It’s going to take a lot of help and getting used to before they feel comfortable eating something new. It doesn’t mean we let them avoid it forever, but it does mean we need to demonstrate patience and empathy.
The steps I’m about to lay out may need to be taken for every single new food. Which I know, sounds exhausting. There are some shortcuts that will help you naturally integrate these steps into your daily life. I’ll share those after I walk you through the steps.
Step 1: Tolerate the presence of the food
This is purely an observational phase. There is no expectation for your child to touch, taste, or smell the food. They may watch you prepare it, hear you talk about it, see it on your plate or a serving platter. But they likely aren’t ready to put it on their own plate.
Step 2: Interact with the food
There is still no expectation to get the food anywhere near their face, or even touch it with their fingers. But now they are comfortable enough to be close to the food. They might touch it with tongs, utensils, or sprinkle on some seasonings, without touching the food with their fingers.
Step 3: Smell the food
This is the third step, and we are JUST now at a point where they can bring the food near their face. Some foods they can obviously smell from further away – like a simmering sauce on the stove or banana bread in the oven. You might notice that they tend to complain when food smells strong, like if you’re cooking broccoli or fish.
But smelling is also a way for them to interact with food in a lower pressure way before tasting it. For example, herbs are fragrant, and having them take a sniff is a step along the journey.
Step 4: Touch the food
We’re getting closer to tasting! But your child may still need plenty of exposure at this step before they feel ready to eat it. Touching food is a sensory experience, and can help them feel more comfortable. But tell them that you’re not asking them to eat it, just see what it feels like. Eventually, they will be ready to bring it to their face and touch it with their lips. (But still not yet eat it). Slow process, I know!
Step 5: Taste the food
Tasting is the final step before eating! Tasting includes licking and biting – even if they spit the food out. It’s okay for them to spit it out and you should tell them that in advance. Having an out can make them more willing to be brave and give it a shot!
4 ways to naturally integrate these steps
Now you understand the progression. Let’s talk about how to do this without having to create a spreadsheet and track every single food introduction. (Which you CAN do, but I know that for most families, you don’t have the time. And that’s okay!)
By the way — it’s not usually a linear process. Sometimes kids skip a step. Sometimes they will be comfortable with step 3 but not step 2, for example. Or maybe they’ll surprise you and skip right to tasting. The main takeaway from seeing the progression is this: it’s not as simple as “just trying it.”
When we say, “just try it!” it’s kind of like someone telling you to just try eating a tarantula. You would be grossed out, have no context for what it would taste like, and generally not on board. I know a carrot is different than a tarantula, but when our kids are in that fear state, it doesn’t matter.
1. Narrate in the kitchen
When you are prepping food, just tell your kid what the foods are and what you’re doing. Use analogies like, “this is crunchy like a carrot,” or, “this is salty like a pretzel.” It helps them put things into context. Having more information doesn’t necessarily take the fear away, but it reduces the unknown, which is often a sticking point for them.
2. Encourage food play
Toddlers and young kids should 100% play with food. (Do the messy stuff outside or in the bathtub if it stresses you out!) The more sensory experiences, the better. You’re hitting on steps 2, 3, and possibly 4 with food play, so it’s a big win. It’s also low pressure because you can do this apart from meal time. That way they don’t feel like you’re trying to get them to eat.
Not sure what to do? Here are lots of ideas:
Note: this post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
11 simple food play ideas:
- Rainbow faces: Give them cut up pieces of fruit and have them make a smiley face on their plate.
- Pasta Sensory Bin: Fill a large container with cooked and cooled pasta shapes for toddlers to explore and play with. Include spoons and measuring cups.
- Veggie Stamping: Cut vegetables like bell peppers, carrots, and cucumbers into shapes. Let your toddler use their imagination to create! (These are the veggie cutters I have.)
- Yogurt Finger Painting: Spread a thin layer of yogurt on a tray. Let toddlers use their fingers to create designs. Use a drop of food coloring to color the yogurt!
- Trail Mix Collage: Provide a variety of colorful and textured cereals and dried fruit to glue onto a piece of cardboard or paper.
- Jell-o Dig: Fill a shallow container with prepared jell-o and hide small toys or objects for toddlers to discover and dig out.
- Oatmeal Sensory Bin: Fill a bin with dry oats and include measuring cups, spoons, and small toys for sensory exploration.
- Fruit Prints: Cut fruits like apples, pears, or oranges and let toddlers dip them in washable paint to make prints on paper.
- Juice Mixology: Use fresh or storebought juices to mix up their own custom flavor blend.
- Edible Sensory Sand: Combine crushed graham crackers or cereal with coconut oil to create a moldable and sensory-friendly “sand” for tactile play.
- Sensory Smash: Give them a few soft fruits like bananas and berries and some kitchen tools to smash them up and see how they feel.
3. Involve them with prep – from toddlers to big kids
Here are 17 ideas for them to start touching different foods. These are toddler-friendly, but of course older kids can do these things, too!
- Washing produce: Let toddlers help wash fruits and vegetables under running water. Provide a small scrub brush for them to gently scrub items like potatoes or carrots.
- Tearing lettuce: Teach toddlers how to tear lettuce leaves for salads or sandwiches. They can have fun with the tearing motion and practice their fine motor skills.
- Mixing ingredients: Allow them to help mix ingredients together in a bowl using a spoon or their hands. For example- stirring pancake batter or mixing cookie dough.
- Sprinkling toppings: Let them sprinkle cheese, herbs, or toppings onto pizzas, casseroles, or salads, giving them a sense of contribution and creativity.
- Mashing ingredients: Give toddlers a potato masher to help mash soft foods. Try avocados, bananas, or boiled eggs, for recipes like guacamole, banana bread, or egg salad.
- Spreading condiments: Show toddlers how to spread condiments like peanut butter, cream cheese, or jam onto bread or crackers. Use a kid-safe butter knife (or just a plastic butter knife).
- Rolling dough: Involve toddlers in rolling out dough for cookies, bread, or pizza crust. They can use a rolling pin or their hands to flatten the dough.
- Sorting ingredients: Have kids sort ingredients like different colored vegetables or fruits into separate bowls or containers. They’ll practice their sorting and categorization skills. (I used to do this with my kids even when I didn’t need things to be sorted. It was good busy work.)
- Cutting soft foods: Allow toddlers to use a butter knife or child-safe knife to cut soft foods. Start with bananas or soft cheese, under close supervision and guidance.
- Scooping batter: Give toddlers an ice cream scoop or spoon to help portion out batter for muffins, cookies, or pancakes onto baking sheets or pans. (LOVE these silicone muffin pans!)
- Setting the table: They can help carry lightweight items to the table.
- Squeezing citrus fruits: Show kids how to squeeze lemons, limes, or oranges to extract juice. Cut them into small wedges so little hands can squeeze them!
- Placing toppings: Involve them in topping dishes like pizzas, tacos, or salads with their favorite ingredients, encouraging creativity and personalization. Even if they are making one for you because they don’t want to eat any of the toppings!
- Peeling bananas: Show toddlers how to peel a banana by starting at the top and pulling the peel downward. It’s good fine motor skill practice! I like to have my kids peel them then chop them to put in the freezer for smoothies.
- Brushing with a pastry brush: Show them how to “paint” vegetables with oil before you roast them.
- Snapping beans: Provide toddlers with fresh green beans or snap peas and demonstrate how to snap off the ends. They can enjoy the satisfying snap and help prepare ingredients.
- Pouring ingredients: Allow toddlers to practice pouring pre-measured ingredients into bowls or containers.
4. Serve meals family style
This one is simple, but not always easy! It’s pretty hard just to get a meal made, let alone serve it family style. No fancy serving dishes needed, but kids will sometimes scoop something onto their plate just because they can. They like acting like a grown up and serving themselves. This also puts them in close proximity to the foods, even if they are not yet ready to have a new food on their plate.
Easy new foods to try
Small steps are what ultimately get you the most progress with your picky eater. And I’m talking SMALL. Think of a staircase from the first to second floor of your house that has 100 steps on it. One of those steps is what I’m talking about! Here’s some tips to get them trying something new, without having to go through all the different levels of exposure.
Change the appearance of a familiar food
When you want your picky eater to expand to new foods, your BEST bet is always going to be to start with something they already like. For example, say they like apples, and you usually buy Gala apples.
Then the first new food you’re going to try is the SAME apple, but served differently. Like if you normally cut it into thin slices, dice into small cubes instead.
Serving their favorite foods in a different way helps build their tolerance for change and variety. We need to build that tolerance, and their ability to be flexible, in order to expand their diet.
Once they are okay with changing the appearance of the same food, then you can move to the next step.
Try a similar variety
For our apple example, this would mean trying a yellow or green apple, or a different variety of red apple. For other foods, it might mean moving to a new brand. Maybe they always eat the same brand of hot dogs, because you’re used to buying the same thing (which is fine!). Just try buying a different brand next week!
Try a new food!
After they have accepted a change to the appearance, and a small change in taste of the same food, then you can try a new, very similar food.
Moving away from an apple, something to try next could be an Asian pear. It’s still crunchy like an apple, with a bit of a different taste. Or, jicama has a very similar crunchy texture and fresh taste, but is less sweet. Applesauce would even count as a different food here, since it’s a completely different texture than apples. And guess what – apple pie could be something you try, too!
This step is way more about variety than it is about nutrition, so don’t worry about it being a less nutritious option, like pie. The point here is expanding their variety. And it’s rare that they would start refusing apples just because they’ve tasted pie. Both can be foods they now like!
How much to serve of a new food?
I typically recommend starting off with a teeny tiny taste, which means a piece about the size of a grain of rice or one drop on a spoon. You can do a larger portion if it’s something you are pretty sure they will try. Like, when you are taking the apple they like and cutting it into different shapes. But when in doubt, give them the tiniest bit. They can obviously always have more, and one tiny piece is lower pressure for them.
A picky eater food list to help
It is helpful to write out a list of the foods your picky eater currently likes to help identify your starting point. In my free picky eater starter guide, you’ll want to use the template I provide to help you make a list of their safe foods – the foods they regularly eat and like – so you can use that as your jumping off point. (Usually parents feel a big relief already just when they fill this out!)
Always be honest
While we do want to get them to try new foods, we don’t want to trick them into it. So, if you bought a new brand of chicken nugget, and they notice it looks a little different, resist the temptation to lie to them and tell them it’s the same. Trust is a huge component in your relationship. And for picky eaters, trust in their food is extremely important to them.
This doesn’t mean you can’t add ingredients without drawing attention to them. For example, I might add spinach or avocado to a smoothie, without making a big deal about it. But if my kid asked me, “wait…did you put that avocado in there?”
It’s hard to say, “yes,” if you think it could mean they will stop drinking it. But honesty is more important in the long run than whether or not they try the new smoothie recipe today.
Want more guidance for your picky kid?
In my online course, Simple Steps to Picky Wins, you’ll find a complete step by step approach to get your picky eater to try new foods. I show you exactly how to move them away from the common favorite foods like nuggets and pasta to get them to eat new foods.
Simple Steps to Picky Wins teaches you how to reverse picky eating through foolproof bite-sized lessons that are quick to watch or listen to. No more confusion on how to navigate it all. You’re going to feel confident and supported with a rock-solid plan.
You probably didn’t think your life would be controlled by chicken nuggets and mac and cheese. I didn’t either. But as a dietitian and picky eater mom myself, there is a way out!
“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry”
You know what they say – even with careful planning, things can still go wrong or not work out as intended. You can follow everything here to a tee, but your kid is still a human being and not a robot. There are many things that factor into mealtime outcomes. You cannot control all of them. Trust me, I’ve tried!
All you can do is your best, and every day that’s going to look a little different. The same is true for your child. Some days they are in a better mood, less tired, have a better appetite, and are more relaxed. Other days they have a meltdown at the drop of a hat.
And, there are several causes of picky eating. Many of them have nothing to do with how you parent or feed your child. There are outside factors that make it harder for them to try new foods.
It can feel like they are just trying to be difficult. I have believed that about my own children MANY times, in the heat of a challenging moment.
You’ve probably heard this before, that they’re having a hard time, not giving you a hard time. And it’s true. They didn’t choose for eating to be hard for them. It doesn’t feel good to them to sit down at a meal and feel worried, stressed, or disgusted.
And for you, it can feel like frustration, worry, and even failure. It’s hard on both of you, and usually the whole family. It’s worth it to get help, you’re not expected to know how to do this on your own!