Getting your toddler to try new foods may feel like trying to capture a unicorn. You hear of other mother’s whose kids eat blue cheese, and snack on olives and pickles, and yet your toddler will only eat toast. But you can get your kids to try new foods without the drama or struggle that you think it may involve. Here’s how to get your picky eaters to become foodies in just a few weeks.
My husband and I love food. We love cooking it; we love eating it, we love talking about it and thinking about it. So naturally, getting our kids to enjoy food and try new things has been a priority in our parenting journey.
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I often dream that we live in a society like the one Pamela Druckerman writes about in Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, a book that details Pamela’s journey of being an American in Paris raising children under a French influence.
The French way of eating encourages long, lingering meals, with a large number of fresh fruits and veggies and tons of variety.
Instead, however, I live in a country that puts more of a religious emphasis on actual religion.
And when it comes to food, there’s a practically endless supply of goldfish, cheerios, buttered pasta, Dino nuggets, and mac & cheese.
I’m not complaining.
Mac & cheese is fucking delicious. So are Dino nuggets. But sometimes I wonder what it would be like if we had a different setup.
Luckily, so far, we’ve been able to encourage a bit of foodie experimentalism with our toddlers.
If you’re dealing with a picky eater you’ll want to read this post as I go over some of the why behind your toddler being unwilling to try new foods. It’s important to know.
The post you’re reading right here focuses on strategies for getting your kid to try new flavors and new cuisines without the battle.
Even if that “new” thing is just a piece of broccoli.
Why Your Child Isn’t Trying New Foods
Some of this resistance in your child this is just because we’re innately stubborn AF when it comes to food, and we like what we like, and we want what we want.
But changing that behavior is through sheer perseverance and a commitment to wanting to raise the kind of kids who could eventually have dinner at a friend’s house and be willing to try a new, potentially very different meal without complaint.
Before I get into how we get our kids to try new foods, first a disclaimer: Toddler palates are notoriously tricky, and sometimes just getting them to eat anything, period, is a monumental feat.
I am by no means an expert in behavioral issues, particularly that relate to food.
If you’re concerned your child is not eating enough or that they may be nutritiously deficient, please consult with your pediatrician.
This blog post is meant to be for the parents of the kids who eat, but who tend to want to stick to the familiar foods they know and love, and are hesitant about branching out.
Here’s how we do it:
No Snacks Between Lunch and Dinner
Okay, don’t starve your child.
But in theory, if they’re hungry, they’ll eat anything.
For several years I insisted that my boys did not get a snack after the nap at daycare, because if they did, they’d come home and not be hungry, much less be open to trying something new.
Since they’re older now and can understand the concept of “belonging to the group” they do get snacks at school. But I secretly hate that they do.
On the weekend we don’t offer snacks after the nap, and instead, we serve dinner 30 – 60 minutes earlier than during the week.
Not shockingly, these are the nights my kids are most open to trying new foods.
Variety Is Key When Introducing New Foods
Yes, we serve a lot of the same meals just because it’s easy and we know how to make them quickly, especially with our busy schedules. Throwing together a dump dinner is a go-to move in this house.
But knowing that our end goal is to encourage trying new things, having a strategy to incorporate new and creative meals into our routine is essential.
I used to spend hours on Pinterest, or Google trying to find new meals to include every week and I got burnt out. That is until I figured out a system for meal planning that made it easy and seamless.
I noticed that one day my 3-year-old would love mac n cheese and if I offered him the same thing the next day he wouldn’t even touch it.
I know there are some 3-year-olds who will only eat one kind of food every day but I wanted to honor this specific preference (and sadly wasted a bit of food doing it) so in came a variety of dishes as often and as varied as possible.
Consistency Is Also Key To Getting Your Toddler to Try New Foods
Toddlers are notoriously picky eaters, and it’s important to acknowledge that even on our best days we may not have success. Early on I read somewhere that it can take more than ten times trying new food to decide if you enjoy it.
For example, every week, for weeks, there sat broccoli on their plates (for at least one meal each week.)
Thankfully both my hubby and I love broccoli, so if the kids didn’t eat their portion, into our bellies, it would go. The same has been true for every other meal we serve them and every other ingredient. Guess which veggie they love now?
If they say, “I don’t like it!” I try to reframe it and repeat it back to them, “You don’t like it yet! Someday, maybe, you’ll like it.”
You Don’t Have to Eat It
Working in tandem with this consistency notion is the idea that they don’t have to eat anything they don’t want to eat. Period. End of story. However, they must, at the very least, try it.
I fully respect and empathize with the development of taste buds and of toddler distinctions of things that are texturally “yucky” – a technical term. But in our house, the one rule we have is that they must try it.
You don’t have to eat it. But you do have to try it.
The hope is that we’re training these future foodies to have adventurous palates.
Balance the Toddler Taste Buds
Once a week we serve one of their favorite go-to meals: Breaded Trader Joe’s chicken, macaroni & cheese, and peas. (One of my go-to meals when I don’t know what to cook) I try to time a simple, enjoyable meal to occur the night after we have served something more experimental.
In fact, anytime there’s a new meal or ingredient on the menu that our children have never experienced, we try to balance it out with something we know they’ll love and eat.
I Am Not A Short Order Cook
I refuse to make a special meal for my children simply because they won’t eat what we’re eating.
This is another reason I always try to include something that I know they will love. At the very least they will drink milk, eat fruit for dessert/as a side dish, or something like rice, pasta, or bread (that toddler carb diet game is strong.)
As they get older, I intend to involve them in the planning and cooking process more so that they can take ownership of the meal and hopefully understand the work included as well as the joy of cooking and eating delicious, home-prepared meals.
Eat As a Family As Often As Possible
A surefire way to get Sammy (almost 2) to try new food is for Jack to show him how yummy it is. And vice versa. Thankfully they are both experimental with different foods.
There are so many reasons why eating together as a family is important. But it doesn’t take much to recognize that the socialization involved in sharing a meal can encourage openness to try new things.
How to get your kid to try new foods? Use a Behavior Hack
In the world of child behavioral therapists, there is something known as scaling questions.
Child psychologists and therapists who work with children on the spectrum will use a scale as a guide for how a child is feeling emotionally, mentally, and physically.
We use this scale to measure how our kids feel about food.
*When I first wrote this post my kids were 2 and 3. Now they are 4 and 6. The tips included apply to a range of age groups but this particular tip is helpful for older kids who understand high/low and middle concepts. Or who can count to 10 and can understand that 10 is more than 1.
When we serve dinner, there will almost inevitably be a moment where there is a protest: Something looks yucky, or they don’t like it.
So we ask them to put it on the scale.
We put our fingers out in front of us and about a foot apart. Ask them to taste the food, and tell us where it is on the scale:
Love it on one side, Hate it on the other.
or…if your child is older, on the scale of 1 – 10 what number is it.
My kids who previously wouldn’t even TOUCH it…taste it JUST to give us a reading on the scale.
We do this for the whole meal btw. The fruit, the beverage, the stuff they LOVE. It works like gold.
Pro tip: if the food in question is a “hate” it make a mental note and re-introduce it again next week. Ask them if it’s still a “hate it” food and have them take another bite and “measure it” on the scale.
Get Fucking Scientific To Help Your Kid Try New Foods
We get a weekly box of food from a local farm that is chock full of fresh produce and veggies. When my kids go through a particularly resistant phase of not wanting to eat or try anything that isn’t noodles or chicken tenders, we do “science” on food.
I usually throw a few “unusual” fruits or veggies we haven’t had in a while: recently we did this with Jicama and something called Dragon fruit.
We pass around the fruit or vegetable… What does it smell like?
Feel it, what does it feel like? Hard? Soft? If you squeeze it will it break?
I ask questions: Do we think this will be sweet or salty? Bitter or tangy? Will it taste more like an orange, sweet, and juicy? Or more like an apple, crisp and tangy.
What color will it be inside when I cut it open? Will it be a different color (Like the inside of a pineapple?) Or will it be the same color (Like the inside of a clementine?)
The boys give me their guesses and we chop the sucker up and reveal what it is.
This is how we’ve eaten and experimented with a number of fruits and veggies to INCREDIBLE success.
There’s something about taking the mystery out of the food that gives kids a chance to feel less “threatened.”
Pro Tip: Try to time this for an hour or two BEFORE you cook a meal so that you can chop up the fruit or vegetable experiment, place on a plate, and let them snack on it until dinner is ready. The repetition of introducing it while they can “have fun” sets it in motion.
But What If They Won’t Even Try It?
I respect my child to know what he likes and doesn’t like when it comes to food. But I don’t trust him to know what he wants, without ever having tried it. And that’s where it’s my role as a parent to help him understand this.
If they absolutely refuse trying something new, then we move into a three-step process to encourage exploration.
Step One to get your toddler to try new foods
The first stage of “trying something” is just having our kid touch the item in question that he refuses to try. He only has to touch the food item with his finger and it has to be on purpose (like, not an accident.)
As a reward, he will get the item of food he does know he likes and usually really wants (because he’s also generally quite hungry.)
Step Two to get your toddler to try new foods
Once we’ve moved past the touching stage, the next step/next time we introduce this particular food is to encourage them to kiss it. The same rules apply as above. The reward is a portion of food they love and want to eat.
Step Three to get your kid to try new foods
The odds are good that if you’ve gotten past the kiss-it stage you’re going to have a successful “try the food” experience. This was actually at play when we first introduced ice cream to Jack. He refused it, screamed and thrashed and said “No, no, ice cream!” (I know can you believe it?)
Once he kissed the ice cream, a little got on his lips and voila, suddenly he was eating ice cream (and has never looked back, huzzah!)
If he still isn’t up for actually eating it, then he does have to lick the food item to “try it.” We encourage them to do this from now on until they actually start to eat it. Or until it’s clear AF that they do not like this particular food with the expectation that we’ll re-introduce it again maybe in a few months.
It’s important to note that a calm, patient conversation with your child will help encourage the desired behavior. We never demand they do any of the above out of anger or frustration. We say something along the lines of, “If you would like the grapes, you must first try the pork (or whatever we’ve served.)”
They may cry, scream, thrash, refuse. We ignore all of this. We continue eating our meal, maybe even a bit overdramatically enjoying it with lots of mmm’s and yum’s until they calm down.
Then we say again, “If you would like the grapes you must first try the pork. You just have to touch/kiss, etc.”
Surprisingly you will learn a lot about your child and their personality through this experience. With Jack, he’s always been relatively eager to please and has a healthy appreciation for authority. Sam is far more stubborn. What would take Jack a few minutes to understand and agree to, can take Sammy 30 minutes to do?
Introducing New Foods is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
My kids are toddlers. A lot is going on in their little minds at all times of the day and night. Growth spurts happen. Developmental growth spurts occur. And sometimes teething pain can interfere with our best intentions when it comes to introducing new foods to our kids.
Add to that life and the stress and unique challenges of work and various schedules and these best intentions can quickly become just that: Intentions. When life is feeling balanced and more normal we try to do as much as we can to keep moving forward with our plan.
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