We all want our kids to eat a healthy and balanced diet. However, getting children to try new foods can often be a challenge. Many kids are picky eaters and may refuse to try anything new. But introducing new foods is essential for their nutritional development and helps them develop a more diverse palate. So, how can we help our kids to try new foods and expand their food choices? In this blog post, we’ll share some tips and strategies that you can use to help your kids try new foods and enjoy the benefits of a more varied diet.
Some people love food. They love the way it tastes, makes them feel, the smell, or the memories it evokes. These folks live to eat. A great meal is much better than a new pair of shoes for the “foodie.” The other side eats to live. Food is a necessity, not an enjoyment. That new pair of shoes over a fancy restaurant? Heck yeah! While the title says kids, people of all ages and stages (author raises hand), struggle to try new foods. This post will address how to support kids in trying new foods. It will describe the “why” first, then the “how”.
Related to trying new foods is utilizing a just right challenge with targeting needs while not pushing kids in trying foods that are too far from their preferred food range.
Trying New Foods
For some, trying new foods is a huge step. There may be many reasons why trying different foods is a struggle. Before we can help kids in trying various foods for nutritional purposes, we need to determine the reason why there is avoidance.
Start with why your learner might be picky
Why do some people love food, while others have a limited diet? There are several factors that can influence eating choices.
- Sensory sensitivity– Check out our blog post on food sensory issues including food aversion for more information.
- Medical issues
Our resource on Therapy for Picky Eaters offers more information as well. we cover more information on the medical and psychological reasons for avoiding new food trials in our resource on What you need to know about sensory food issues.
How to support kids in trying new foods
Once the “why” is determined, it is easier to work on the “how”. Medical issues can be solved first. There will likely be some residual anxiety that needs to be worked through, but often the problem resolves with correct medical treatment. Sensory sensitivities, social, emotional, and eating disorders will be more difficult to resolve.
EATING DISORDERS – these can be very complex, involving the right type of treatment to make headway. There is more to recovery than mind over matter. Some treatments such as inpatient forced feeding, avoiding scales and mirrors, scare tactics, or shaming the learner, are not effective for many cases. If you or your loved one has an eating disorder, do research to find the correct type of treatment.
- create a welcoming environment for eating.
- discuss what might be negative triggers, working to alleviate these.
- start slowly by allowing your learner to try new foods alone, or eating in a quiet pair.
- avoid large restaurant gatherings at first.
- discuss ahead of time what food might be available at a birthday party or restaurant.
- bring a snack in case there is nothing your learner will eat.
- decide sometimes not to battle. Your learner will survive a seven-day cruise on bread and ice cream (true story) for the sake of a nice vacation for everyone.
- talk about the nutritional benefits of food, the importance of certain foods, and discuss what foods your learner might be willing to try. Scurvy and rickets come from nutritional imbalances. Decide if this information will be effective, scare your learner, or have no effect at all.
- have an exit clause. Teach learners to discreetly remove an unwanted food from their mouth with a napkin. Reassure them that they will be able to take the bite out if it does not feel or taste right. Having an “out” often puts learners at ease, making it less risky to try.
- employ the “no thankyou bite”. Teach your learner about social etiquette and the importance of trying. It is impossible to say you do not like a food without trying it. One bite (with good effort), is more socially acceptable than just refusing grandma’s casserole. That one bite, may surprise your learner, turning into a new favored food.
- systematic desensitization is a long fancy word for teaching your learner to slowly get used to something. The Sensory Oral Sequential SOS method of eating involves slowly desensitizing the brain/body to a new food. It starts with being in the same room as the food, and 27 steps later the food is swallowed. Getting a better understanding on whether food avoidance is oral motor or sensory is a great start.
- Make a game of eating. Have the family rate foods they have tasted. One means I will never go near that food again. Five means I like it and will eat it again. Challenge learners to gather points by eating/trying new foods. 10 new foods lead to a prize. Take turns selecting foods to try. This dinner plate can be motivating
- Check out Food Chaining strategy
- Food tasting game
- Take the list of foods your learner currently eats, and make SMALL changes. It may be as small as breaking the crackers into pieces. Try different shapes of pasta, a new flavor of yogurt, a different jelly on the bread, toasting the bread, different kinds of French fries, or a different brand of waffle. Small changes to preferred foods can feel like a big deal.
- Check out these lunch box ideas for picky eaters
- Hiding food may be a good idea, may backfire, or not make any difference. Sneaking carrots into brownies is a good idea to add nutritional value. It will not teach your child to love carrots, but will add vitamins. Stuffing something weird into their sandwich may backfire, causing your learner to avoid one of the few foods they will actually eat.
- Involve your learner in the process. Have them help select the items to buy, prepare the foods, and cook the meals. This can give back some control and motivate your learner to try.
- Take a breath and relax. Oftentimes caregivers add more stress by pressing their child to eat more. Responding with anxiety, frustration, or anger is not going to elicit an eating response. Walk away if you can not sit there and pretend it does not matter that your child is living on bread.
Sensory Strategies to support kids learning to eat new foods
Desensitizing the oversensitive sensory system is the first step in taming the picky eater who struggles with sensory based food aversion.
- Systematic desensitization as stated above in the emotional section, works just as well for sensory struggles. The Sensory Oral Sequential SOS method of eating involves slowly desensitizing the brain/body to a new food. It starts with being in the same room as the food, and 27 steps later the food is swallowed. Making small changes to foods, having your learner engage with food, giving them control over food choices is a good start.
- Tactile – work in and around the hands and mouth. Provide safe choices for touching with the hands such as dry rice, dry beans, sand, play dough, birdseed, shaving cream, or slime. Start with dry textures, moving toward wet and sticky. “Safe choices” refers to something that is not threatening. Playing in birdseed is not threatening to your learner because they know they are not expected to eat it. When comfortable, you can move your learner to engaging with actual food such as whipped cream, pudding, fruits, or a bowl of dry cereal. Decrease tactile sensitivity in the mouth. Use a vibrating toothbrush, an icy washcloth, Twizzlers left out to harden overnight, sour spray, or popsicles to get the mouth used to different temperatures and textures. Our post on food texture issues will offer many more strategies.
- Auditory – practice listening to different types of sounds and music. There are videos of people eating and chewing to desensitize your learner. These are difficult to listen to, so wade in slowly. As an alternative, provide noise canceling headphones for a while to help your learner tune out sounds.
- Visual – check out videos of people eating, food preparation, presentation of foods, cooking channel, kids cooking shows. The idea is to desensitize the learner to reduce triggers.
- Olfactory – work on smell aversion by providing more smells to balance the sensory system in the nose. These can start out pleasant like lemon or peppermint. Open the spice cabinet for sniffing. See if your learner can identify items by their smell. Coffee beans are great to have around as they cancel out smells in the nasal passageways. Once someone is triggered, have them smell the beans to reset their system.
- Taste – practice tasting and identifying. Make a conscious effort to teach your learner to describe the food. Try very different tastes. Some people love spicy foods, others can’t get enough of sour (try Warheads sour spray, or lemon juice). Different dipping sauces can help. Ketchup seems to help immensely. Other dippers could be honey, ranch dressing, mustard, sugar, salt, peanut butter, butter, barbeque sauce, honey mustard, etc. Many picky eaters do not like spices or anything extra at all. Be mindful of this. If this is the case, serve very plain foods for a while. Mixed textures are more difficult to tolerate as they have several different tastes in one. The temperature of food can have different effects. Some picky eaters like everything at room temperature. Not too hot or cold for these folks.
Tips for Trying New Foods
- Good structured mealtimes are important for successful feeding. Eating at the table for a set amount of time (usually 20-30 minutes), with other people encourages good eating habits
- Limit external stimuli during eating if there is a sensory or behavioral issue eating. This not only causes a distraction that limits food intake, it also pairs eating with electronics or tv, and the child cannot eat without it. This is not just a bad habit
- Sitting in a proper chair for the child’s size improves chewing and swallowing
- There will be setbacks. Keep calm and carry on
- Present all foods on the plate in small portions. Or provide two options with small bites of each. Divided plates help ease anxiety, as do small portions
- The patterns are not always clear
- Things do not always work as we expect
- Children will often eat in the clinic, but then refuse to eat at home. This can be related to emotional stress or something environmental going on at home.
- Eating is very difficult, so trust and calm are very important
- It is ok to let a child have dessert while eating. A bite of carrot and then a bite of cookie.This keeps the child motivated
- A complete feeding program takes up to a year to improve the amount of foods that the child will tolerate. Take it slow and be patient
The best advice I ever gave myself when supporting my kids learning to try new foods, was to back off. I took the parent hat off and replaced it with the therapist one. This made all of the difference. Once I looked at my girls clinically, I was able to step back and look at the “why” first. I realized they were not going to starve to death on bread and orange wrapped cheese.
I will leave you with a funny story. I took my picky eater (age 3) to the doctor for her check-up. We discussed food aversion of course. At that stage her only meat was bologna. The doctor looked straight at me and said, “she really should be eating salmon and fresh tuna”. I laughed. The idea of making a huge jump from bologna to salmon is preposterous. Everyone knows you jump to trying hotdog next!
Victoria Wood, OTR/L is a contributor to The OT Toolbox and has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.
The Food Inventory Questionnaire is provides the therapist with a data sheet for a child’s repertoire allowing for consistent data collection over the course of feeding treatment. It also provides the therapist with a professional looking tool and talking point during the initial feeding evaluation to ensure that a comprehensive list of foods the child eats is gathered to support successful feeding therapy. Get your copy here.