Why is this important?
Like most parents, I was struggling with getting my child to try new foods. She would push away anything even slightly unfamiliar, make disgusted sounds and spit out the food even when she would try it. Sounds familiar?
Unsure if she gets enough nutrients to support her growth and proper brain development, this worried me. I started studying the psychology behind this behavior and looked into community-suggested techniques. Many of the suggestions I found did not work or were just unpractical.
While insightful “remember this is normal”, “be understanding” or “don’t give up” did not offer real solutions to my problem.
I was looking for a practical guide that would explain the reasons why my daughter does not want to try new things and give me simple steps to follow. Unfortunately, I was not able to find one, so I created a list of ideas and started testing them one by one.
The psychology of picky eating
During the trial and error process, I started noticing patterns in children’s fuzzy eating behavior. I quickly realized that our children are paranoid control freaks. Picky eating can largely be explained by two psychological phenomena.
Children are naturally cautious of anything new when it comes to food. This is actually not much different from most adults who are not too eager to try anything exotic. Keep in mind that this early in your kid’s life everything is still completely new and scary for them. Add to this the fact that, they have a deep desire to exercise their free will and be in control of the situation. Suddenly their behavior starts to make a lot of sense.
While conducting my study, I discovered some completely new and unorthodox techniques that I included in the list of 19 best tricks that get your kids to eat new foods. These practical tips actually work and make your life as a parent so much easier. As a bonus they also allow you to expand your kid’s menu with healthier food options.
Enjoy your journey 🙂
1. Disclose your caring & non-sinister motives
This is what you should do first. Sit down with your kid, look them deep in the eye and talk to them using simple words and a friendly manner. Your purpose is to let them know WHY you want them to taste different foods. If possible illustrate your talk with pictures or drawings to make it more impactful and easier to remember.
Make it very clear that you are not forcing them to try anything. They have complete control over what they put in their mouths.
Tasting is NOT eating
Start by explaining that “tasting” is not the same as “eating” because it comes with no strings attached. Tasting could be as little as half a pea or touching a spoon with a tongue while eating fills the belly.
The purpose of tasting the food is to find out how it feels like, nothing more. Is it hot or cold? Soft or crunchy? Salty, sweet or even sour? Tasting does not mean you have to eat that food. It gives you a chance to learn about new food and decide whether you like it.
Do you like going to the doctor?
Next, talk about how food is directly connected with their health. Talk about what are the different nutritional groups and what happens if they don’t eat enough macronutrients, minerals or vitamins.
Tell them that if they want to grow tall, strong and beautiful they need to eat a good variety of different foods. Like eating a rainbow.
Give them examples about what food groups make the body strong and which ones weak (vegetables vs candy). For example, If you only eat pasta and pizza your body will get weak and sick.
Tell them about having to go to the doctor often. Staying in the hospital for weeks or even having to inject themselves every day forever, like it is the case with diabetes.
Do you want to learn cooking?
If your child shows interest in cooking, use that. Explain that tasting different foods is the most important part of learning to cook. They can never become a real chef or come up with their own recipes unless they taste the food they are cooking.
Every good chef needs to know how to make the food yummy. This is done by combining matching ingredients so the result would taste good. If you don’t try food items, you don’t know what ingredients taste like and you can’t match them together.
2. Try Natural tastes and use minimal seasoning
Some experts advocate adding more seasoning to the kids’ food in order to get them to eat. I disagree completely as I have experienced just the opposite. The more natural and cleaner the ingredients the more likely my daughter and other children have liked to eat that food. A well seasoned hit dish that adults rave about is often discarded or ignored by the children. Why is that?
Children are not yet addicted to food additives
Adult and children taste buds are very different due to experiences, palate and food addictions. You can notice big differences even between adults who come from different cultures. Europeans are not customed to eating spicy food while Asians are not fans of the bread.
Yet we tend to judge the food we offer our children by our own matured standards. We offer them food seasoned as we like it. This could be a major cause of their picky eating. As adults, we have for decades been exposed to unnatural and often unhealthy seasoning habits. Extensive use of salt, sugar, msg and many other harmful food additives has altered our taste perception. Serving such food for a child is unnatural and should be avoided.
Keep it close to nature
Children are not yet addicted to salt and other artificial additives we are accustomed to. They tend to prefer completely natural unseasoned foods that come straight from nature.
Try raw veggie sticks (carrots, cauliflower, peas, broccoli, celery, etc.), cut them easily manageable size and serve with a light tip. Serve fruits and berries or simply steam some sweet potato or pumpkin. They will very likely surprise you about what foods they actually like. If you cook for the whole family separate a portion of the food for your child just before the major seasoning.
3. Rename new foods similar to the foods they already like
Children are naturally cautious when trying new foods as are you when you think about it. The only difference is that for you new is rare and means boiled lamb testicles or grilled cockroaches skewers you refused to try on your last trip to Thailand. For your kid, pretty much every single thing is just as new.
For a young mind, the world is full of an overwhelming amount of choices. They are always looking for something familiar, something they can feel safe about.
The best way to address this is to build a mental connection between the new food item and an existing favorite. For example, if your kid likes hot dogs, cut the carrots in the shape of hot dogs, boil them in lightly seasoned water and tell them this is a “rabbits hot dog”. This is how we initially got our daughter to eat Chantarelle mushrooms. We said, “look, this is a small hot dog” as the long skinny mushroom legs resemble small sausages. Now she is the biggest fan of mushrooms with long legs 🙂
Uncles, Aunts, Sisters, and brothers
Also, you could create a “family relation” between similar foods items. For example, Bzidore eats broccoli but didn’t want to try Kale. I explained to her that Kale is Broccoli’s little sister, she paused for 5 seconds and confirmed: “This is broccoli little sister?”.
I nodded and right away she started eating the kale like there’s no tomorrow. Until she had finished the whole portion and said: “I like broccoli little sister, daddy”. It works like magic, really!
4. Use Reverse Psychology
Children are prone to break the rules and like to challenge authority. Use this to your advantage and try reverse psychology. Prohibiting the food item you actually want them to try triggers their natural curiosity and is very hard to resist. Especially when you turn your back at them and give them a chance to sneak it by you.
When introducing a new food item place it on the table strategically within their reach. Then look them deep in the eye and say “Do not eat this broccoli!”. Then make yourself look busy and follow them from the corner of your eye.
There is a good chance that they will try to take a little bite when you are not looking. Even if they don’t do it behind your back, they might ask to try some once you return to the table.
5. Let them freely investigate the food before trying
Children are having internal battles between curiosity and cautiousness when it comes to trying new foods. On one hand, they would like to look, smell and touch every food out there, but are too cautious to put something new in their mouth.
Encourage your child to play with their food
- Ask them to look at the new food closely and describe how it looks like.
- Let them touch it and describe how it feels. Is it hard or soft? Warm or cold? Similar to what?
- Let them smell it and tell you how does it smell.
Once they have gone through all previous sensory exploration steps they might be ready to lick it and even take a bite. If not in a single time, they will eventually move up the ladder and get there.
6. Create food shortage
For a cautious little person, anything in small quantities feels precious, while large quantities come off as intimidating and overwhelming.
Try creating an artificial food shortage to make a child feel that they are not forced to eat too much. This makes them feel safe, relaxed, allows them to comprehend the new food item better and makes them more willing to experiment.
You have much better chances of getting them to try something new and ask for more than if you load their plate with a mountain of scary unknown food.
7. Keep them separated!
Children are extremely cautious eaters. They want to be 100% sure what to expect when they put something in their mouth. They are not fans of messy foods because of the uncertainty of how things mixed together are going to feel and taste like. Even if you serve food they like in an unfamiliar context, it is often enough for them to bail.
Mixing new foods together with old favorites might actually backfire as your child could develop a negative disposition towards the “intruder foods”. This makes it harder for them to try these foods in the future.
Your best strategy is to give them back the control & free will while encouraging them to familiarise themselves with new foods. Do your best to keep all the foods clean and recognizable, do not cover them up with anything or cut them in unrecognizable ways.
8. Use simple form factor
Why do most children like pasta, meatballs, french fries, sausages or cutlets? Because of their simple form factor. I found a common theme during my research and experimentation, children hate messy foods!
It is very difficult to get a child to eat risottos, stir-fries or casseroles no matter how delicious they are. The same thing goes for clear soups that have multiple components. You would have much better luck on blending it all up and offering a homogeneous puree soup instead. Anything that looks like there is more than one component makes a child cautious.
Creating food with simple form factor allows you to pack multiple useful veggies into the single food item.
Make your life easier by preparing a large batch and store them in a freezer for later use.
9. Let them pick up their own utensils from the shop!
Children like to be in control and exercise their free will because they don’t get to do this very often. Giving them a chance to pick up their own plate, fork, knife or spoon from the shop will overall increase their excitement about mealtime. In combination with other techniques in this guide, they will be more likely open to trying new things.
10. From seed to the plate! Show them where the food comes from
In order to neutralize all the uncertainties your child has around eating, it is very important to remove the mystery surrounding food. What is it? Where is it coming from? Why does it look and smell different? Show them first hand how their food is being grown and how it gets prepared. For best results allow them to take part in those activities directly.
Soil, Sunlight, and Water
Tell them about the magic of nature. How a seed turns into food with the help of soil, water, and sunlight. Show them how ALL the fruits and vegetables start off as a tiny seed.
Teach them how seeds sprout when exposed to moisture. How the sprouted seeds become seedlings in the soil and how they grow into massive plants that bear fruit that we can harvest.
Let them get their hands dirty and take part in this beautiful process first hand on a daily basis. This will make them love and appreciate the food when it finally gets on their plate.
You can start at home
If you don’t have your own garden you can easily get started at home with minimum cost. Even if you have a tiny apartment. Just scrape some seeds out of the fruits and veggies you buy from the supermarket. Place them on a wet kitchen paper on a plate and see the magic happen in a few days.
Later you can either plant the sprouted seed in the indoor pot, find a community garden in your area or ask a friend who has one. Understanding how food grows is a beautiful realization that every child needs to have in order to become open to trying new foods.
The Final transformation
Once they understand how the food grows it is time for a final step. Invite them to cut and prepare the same fruits and vegetables they have seen grow.
It is important to see how the full vegetable is transformed into a dish so they would still recognize it even it looks and smells very different. This completes the seed to plate circle and removes the final piece of scary mystery from the food in your child’s mind.
11. Present the food in a fun way
The presentation of the food is as important to a child as it is for adults, only they prefer fun and approachable to fancy and artistic. This will help the child to see the food in a friendly non-threatening light and sometimes totally forget that the food they are eating is new.
Try creating funny cartoons or landscapes from the cut-up fruit and vegetables using a large plate as a canvas or arrange the food items together as lego to make shapes of animals and buildings.
12. Stop repeating yourself!
A human brain is a powerful learning machine. If you get down to the basics, it works on a simple principle of repetition. Every time you repeat experience or association you strengthen the connections for a particular subject. That’s why it is very important to not resort to staples just because your kid asks you to.
Offering the same foods over and over again creates stronger connections in your child’s brain for these foods and makes them even less likely to venture out and try anything else outside this box.
Avoid creating negative patterns
I know, it is really hard to resist your child’s cute little face and sad voice when they say “Mommy, I want to eat pasta!”. But remember, by giving you are digging a deeper and deeper hole for yourself. You are teaching them two wrong things with this behavior.
First that they do not need to eat the food that is being served and second that they can just snap their fingers and their favorite safe food will magically appear on their plate.
Stand your ground! If you cook something and your child refuses to eat it, do not jump into the kitchen to prepare them another thing.
It will create a negative pattern and the more you do it, the more they will demand it. The stronger this negative pattern becomes the harder and more painful it is to get rid of it later. Teach them that the food changes every day and they have to learn to accept this.
Make a strict rule for your family
If you had carrots today, serve pumpkin tomorrow, then potatoes and then broccoli. There are enough yummy fruits and veggies to go around that you could easily go for an entire week without repeating yourself.
Do the same with fruits, grains and other food groups. For example bread, pasta, rice, beans, lentils should not be repeated two days in a row.
Make a rule for yourself to not offer any food items 2 days in a row. The only thing consistent on the menu should be the water.
This will help them to be ready and expecting the change and do not let them cling into any single favorite item. As a bonus, eating a larger variety of foods is much better for their health.
13. Play a food guessing game
Gamification is a very powerful teaching tool, both for adults and especially for children. Turning a tedious “have to do” process into a fun game takes the attention away from the learning itself. It makes us feel like we are just having fun while behind the scenes strengthening the newly created synapses in our brain. Games have the needed repetition as well as the positive emotions associated with playing the game.
You could probably come up with dozens of eating-related games, but this one is my favorite. It will also help expand your child’s self-expression skills and vocabulary. Here’s how you play it.
Tell your kid that you want to play a fun game with them, but they need to close their eyes and open their mouth. Use a light scarf or other props, to make it more of an event. Tell them that they need to guess what something tastes like and get points if they guess correctly.
Is it cold or hot? Soft, crunchy or smushy? Sour, salty, bitter or sweet? What does it remind them of? Do not ask if they like it or not, that is not the purpose of the game. Each time they answer correctly cheer for them and give them “a point”. If they get all the answers right they win and get to pick what’s for dinner tomorrow.
Do not ask them to eat the food they tried after the game is finished unless they specifically ask for it. This could make them feel manipulated and hesitant to play this game the next time. That’s not what you want!
14. Let them fill their own plate
Your child wants to make their own decisions and be in control, yet there are very few places where they can actually exercise their free will.
Filling their plate with a mountain of food can make them feel obligated and intimidated. This can create an emotional blockage that makes it even more difficult for them to accept new things.Try to serve an empty plate and give them a choice of what and how much the would like to put on there.
15. Teach them that refusing to eat means hunger
Parents often make a mistake of making the food always available. We all know that it is really hard to resist if your little one is telling you “I am hungry” outside of mealtimes. This creates two problems.
First, we end up feeding them with nutritionally questionable snacks and second, we teach them that food is always available. If a child has lived all their life with an ability so snap fingers and make food magically appear, they do not have a concept of hunger in their head.
They do not comprehend that skipping a meal could be a problem for them since there are always these sweets and snacks that mommy or daddy serves on demand.
The best way to create these connections is to just let them be hungry if they refused to eat at mealtime. It may seem harsh, but having experienced the consequences of refusing food is an important lesson every human being needs to learn. They are not going to learn this unless they experience it first hand.
16. Take the first bite and make it look irresistible
Be a role model! Show your child that it is, in fact, food and not poison 🙂 Take the first bite and make it look and sound like that it is something they would not want to miss!
Use adjectives! Describe the taste and the mouthfeel to build their curiosity. You want them to think “I want to know how “crunchy” feel like, give me some of that”.
Sharing food with a parent is a strong motivator for trying new things as well as helps to strengthen the trust between the two of you.
17. Give them a choice while you are defining the choices
There is nothing that your kid wants more than to be in control and decide what they will eat. On the other hand, their choices are often not the best from the nutritional point of view and limited to the collection of their previous experiences.
If you would just ask, what would they like to eat for dinner, the answer will probably be “pasta and ice cream” and that wouldn’t be acceptable for you. There is a way however to give child control while still guiding the choices. Let them choose between options, just like a multiple-choice question.
It’s a win-win. They will still feel the empowerment of being in control and are much more happy to eat the food they themselves have picked out. While you are able to serve better food for their health and expand their culinary horizons.
18. Eat out of the house, travel excitement creates hunger
During the 3 years of my daughter’s life, we have lived in 4 different countries and done a more fair share of traveling. I have noticed that every time we are in the car, in nature or just in a new and exciting place her appetite increases threefold. Now we have been using this trick on a regular basis.
The excitement of the traveling and increased sensory stimulation from everything new will suppress their cautiousness and need for control. It seems that they are tuned in the right frequency for trying new things and also have an increased appetite from the excitement itself.
19. Don’t treat them like a baby!
Every child dreams about growing up wants to be considered a big boy or a girl. It makes a huge difference for them if the whole family eats together with them instead of being treated in a “special” way “like a baby”.
Even you most definitely have caring intentions, analyze your behavior and try to identify any actions that create separation between your child and the rest of the family.
Avoid chasing your kid around with the spoon, this makes them feel embarrassed and creates food-related stress that in time can become an eating disorder.
Don’t hold exclusive eating sessions with your child as this will cause separation and give them a feeling of being treated like a baby. Season the same food in two patches if necessary, but avoid cooking different dishes for your child and the rest of the family. Don’t force them to eat anything just as you are not forcing the rest of the family.
Make sure your child has their own chair, permanent place at the table, their favorite utensils and complete freedom to choose whatever they want to eat from the table. Do not try to control how much, little or how they eat. Trust that they will eventually pick up and be inspired by the rest of the family. They are naturally inclined to imitate you and the best you can do is to lead by example.