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Kids

How to Get Fussy Eaters to Try New Foods

Simone Austin
Written by Simone Austin | Dietitian
Get fussy eaters to try new foods

Mealtimes can be stressful with young families, particularly if there are fussy eaters in the household. At the end of a long day, dinner time hits and you just wish everyone would eat their dinner, the dishes be washed up and there would be a little time to relax. Instead I am sure many parents have experienced the refusal of a young one to eat and a battle begin. This doesn’t have to be the way.

Strategies for trying new foods

There are strategies to help children be comfortable with trying new foods and expanding their repertoire so they can enjoy all the delicious tastes food brings and have more foods they enjoy than can be counted on one hand.

When is best to try new foods?

Eating takes energy, and for small bodies at the end of the day they are tired and don’t have a lot of energy to spare. Eating requires good posture to sit up at the table and for little ones the physical act of putting food to the mouth and chewing takes effort they may not want to put in, especially if they don’t know if they will like what is on offer.

Introducing new foods are likely to have more success and least resistance when they are alert and hungry. This therefore may not be the evening meal. Breakfast and lunch or even afternoon tea, (when they are often ravenous) are the ideal times to try. It might be having an egg on toast for breakfast that they are familiar with and enjoy, together with introducing a new food; which might include one of tomato, mushroom or spinach. Try only one new food at a time that way it is not too overwhelming.

In the afternoon when they come home from school the first stop is often the fridge or pantry. Rather than filling up only on familiar foods and then not being very hungry for dinner, could you try to have a small amount of dinner food, even if left over from the night before, with a new vegetable or grain in there? If they fill up before dinner, there is little incentive for trying a new food at dinner time, as they really aren’t hungry and can’t be bothered.

At home or away?

It is also best to try new foods in a familiar environment for fussy eaters, when they are relaxed. By all means encourage them to try new foods when eating out at restaurants, other people’s houses when there may be an opportunity for them to model other children eating those foods, however keep it as an encouragement, not a push as we don’t want to put them off the food for the future due to a bad experience.

How to introduce new foods to picky eaters

Home is not a restaurant. Food choice is important, however it is not about making a different meal to suit everyone’s requests all the time and having parents pull their hair out in the process.

Kids are not born picky eaters. With enough exposure kids will usually try new foods. They need opportunity to develop a relationship with many types of foods. This starts with getting used to the look, smell and texture of food and then moves onto the taste when they put it in their mouth. Smell makes up some of your taste, hence when children tell you, ‘I don’t like it,’ and the food hasn’t even gotten close to their mouth!

  1. Start by placing some of the new food on their plate along with other familiar foods.
  2. Let them explore it, touch it, smell it and if they like taste it.
  3. Don’t force them to eat it, encourage them to smell it and possibly eat a small amount.
  4. Give encouragement without making too much fuss.
  5. You may need to present this food at least 10 times in various ways before they will like it. This is how they become familiar with the food. You may know foods you didn’t like when younger but kept trying and now like as an adult.
  6. Let them know the veggies or other new food is there. If we always hide them, they aren’t becoming familiar with the look, smell or texture of the veggies (other food) and they will then refuse to eat it if on the plate and not recognised.
  7. When they try and remove the food from the plate encourage them to leave it there even if they don’t eat it, this helps them become more familiar with it.
  8. Finger food is a good way to introduce new foods- feeling and experimenting is how children learn.

You can explain they are unlikely to like foods the first time they try them, particularly more bitter foods such as vegetables and it may take numerous tries. This way they may be open to keep trying.

Meal prep for fussy eaters

There are times that some foods will never taste good, so think about how you have prepared the food. For example, boiled zucchini will always taste like a soggy dish cloth, so grill or bake it with some extra virgin olive oil and a few herbs. It is important to add flavour to make foods enjoyable. By adding oil it also increases the absorption of fat soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K from the vegetables.

Half the fun of supposed kids’ meals is the way they are served, in a colourful box, on a special plate or that they come with a toy. At home you could also use colourful plates.

Help them become familiar with food by having them help out in the kitchen. Cutting up fruit, washing vegetables, decorating the fruit platter, stirring, mixing and making dough. The more involved they are, the more invested they will be in the outcome.

Parents provide, child decides

You as the parent are in charge, of what food is available and kids decide how much and if they will eat it. Children might pester you to buy certain food but you decide when and how often certain foods are provided. Don’t encourage children to finish everything on their plate when they have had enough to eat. Children are intuitive eaters, knowing they have had enough, and it is a very important skill we want to hang onto into adult hood. Remember young children have small appetites and are no longer doubling or tripling their body weight like they did in their first year of life, so they will go through phases of smaller and larger appetites. Offering children snacks in between meals is quite suitable however avoid continual grazing. If they are constantly picking, they curb their appetite just enough to not be particularly hungry at mealtime and are therefore less likely to be motivated to try new foods.

Making food fun for fussy eaters

Finger food is always fun, chicken in strips, chicken legs, broccoli with stalks, corn on the cob, fruit pieces and to make other things easier soup from mugs, fruit cut up in small sized pieces. It is good to mix up how you present their favourite foods also, for example crumbed chicken. If you serve it the same way all the time, they may become sick of it and not want to eat it anymore. Try crumbing fish instead of chicken for a change and then move on to grilling or baking it and introduce new flavours.

Time limit

After a reasonable amount of time if the meal isn’t eaten or tried take it away. Around thirty minutes is plenty for main meals and fifteen minutes for snacks. No threats of, ‘no dessert’ if you don’t eat your main. This sets up dessert foods as special and the main meal as evil and negotiating sets in.

Meal time should be a pleasant time, where adults role model eating a wide range of foods (you need to increase your range of foods too?). Research shows that parents who role model eating a range of fruit and vegetables are likely to have children who will try and eat more fruit and vegetables too. You can look forward to with time, your fussy eater enjoying a wide range of nutritious foods with you and it is ok not to like some foods.