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10 Tips for Helping Kids Try New Foods

I’m used to dealing with a little pushback from armies of school children. In my previous life in Wisconsin, I spearheaded the area initiative to incorporate local food in the school lunches and helped expand our elementary school garden to be a major source of food for the schools. I coordinated the school district’s fruit and vegetable snack program and taught nutrition. I was known affectionately (I think) as “The Fruit Girl.”

I get that not everyone in the schools was as pumped as I was for raw cabbage or persimmon snack day but I avoid the term “picky eater” at all costs. I know it’s a common phrase, but I feel it does a couple of things that undermine healthy new food experiences with kids. First, it labels them and gives the kids (and you!) an excuse to reject new experiences. Second, it puts negative food notions front and center. Instead, let’s talk about trying new things and sharing experiences. Let’s keep the food talk positive and descriptive.

Here are my top ten tips for helping your kids try something new.

  1. Cultivate an air of mystery. Keep the cool new produce item you just picked up in a brown bag and let your kids guess what amazing thing might be in there. This could segue into a mystery dish a few nights a week for dinner that everyone looks forward to discovering.
  2. Take your time. Taste new things together. Examine it, smell it, lick it, take a bite. Then describe the food to each other. Is it sour or sweet? Crunchy, soft or crispy? Kids will come up with fascinating thoughts. A group of students I worked with started hatching a plan for a pomelo-based perfume line after sniffing and tasting the grapefruit lookalike.
  3. Balance. Intersperse new or usual foods with tried and true favorites.
  4. Give kids the green light to munch on as many fresh fruits and vegetables (especially veggies!) as they can. Growing up, my dad cut up a bunch of carrot sticks every weekend for snacks throughout the week. These carrot sticks were housed in a tall, cylindrical container filled with water. I knew exactly where they were in the fridge, and I could grab some anytime. It felt very cool to be able to get a snack for myself.
  5. The power of choice is huge. “Should we have carrots or peas? Which spice should go in the chicken dish? Should we cut the sweet potatoes in sticks or cubes?” Choose two options that you’re okay with and let the kids decide.
  6. Keep the pressure off. It’s easy to feel emotionally invested in a meal or food item and struggle to get your child to try something. I love the approach Frances’ mom takes in Bread and Jam for Frances. She lets Frances’ obsession for bread and jam play out and even encouraged it, so that after a few meals, Frances couldn’t wait to try something new.
  7. Ask kids for advice. “I’m really not in the mood for carrots, but I want something that’s orange or red and crunchy. What would you suggest?” Kids love being in the driver’s seat and this tactic could lead to fun mini research projects as they seek to discover the perfect option for you.
  8. Cook together. Shop together. Garden together. The more invested and involved your kids feel in the food, the more adventurously they’ll eat. Talk about selecting the ripest melon or which pieces of chicken are best for the grill. Expand their duties as they get older and more interested – send them off to find the whole wheat penne in the grocery store or put them in charge of the salad course at dinner.
  9. Usually kids will follow your lead, if you’re excited and open to trying new things, they will be, too.
  10. Institute a “polite bite” rule. This reinforces the need to respect the food and the cook, but keeps the pressure low.

What are your strategies for feeding a persnickety eater or introducing new foods? Share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section below.

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rae.jones2 says …

I have a Grandson, who will only eat chicken nuggets, no other meats, will eat a salad of green lettuce and ranch dressing. French Fry, apples and other fruits, deep fried fish sticks. How can I get him to eat other food that will give him more protein? How do institute a "polite bite" rule. His 8yrs old. thanks Judy

Patty says …

We have a 4 year old who eats very slowly or not at all. At times when we think he should be really hungry, such as breakfast, he will spend his time playing at the table and not eating. We have tried giving him time limits. We have threatened to take away things he loves to try to motivate him. We have tried to make meal time fun. We have let him pick from healthful choices what he would like to eat. The result is, when he does take a bite of food, it will sit in his mouth and he wont swallow for a long time. He is active. He appears to be smart. We have asked if any thing hurts when he eats and he says no. We are at our wits end. Does anyone have any new ideas?

Susan McGinn says …

My 5 year-old son has a hearty appetite, and enjoys lots of different foods, but lately he's been less willing to just eat whatever we're eating (which is the standard we've set in the past), and wants to stick with known favorites. I think the advice about increasing his involvement in preparing foods, and the opportunity to grab fresh veggies himself might help; thanks! My recommendation: check out the album "Eat Like a Rainbow" by Jay Mankita; it's good music full of good messages that can really influence kids' thinking! Full disclosure: Jay is my sweetheart & co-parent :)

Joan says …

These ideas look wonderful! I wish I had thought of these things when my children were growing up. Now I wish you had some equally good ideas for very picky eater husbands!

amy says …

From the time our daughter was eating solids we would explain the one bite rule: So and so put a lot of time and love into each meal and we all take One Polite Bite of each food to show our respect. Leave it at that. Usually one bite leads to another--not always. Also, children should be given only what the grown-ups eat. No substitutes. Now my daughter--who is almost 15--loves to enjoy pretty much all kinds of healthy, various foods. And she is a very happy kid--not scarred for life from just getting a glass of milk for dinner occasionally. If you remember your own childhood, I'm willing to bet you went to bed without eating dinner sometimes!

Paul says …

My 4 yr old daughter got to pick out a sticker and stick it on a page we kept for trying a new food. We would also write down the name of the food she tried on the page. The deal was that when she got to 10 stickers I would take her to pick out a toy of her choice. She is 6 now and she just finished her 5th sheet of 10 items. It's fun to go back and see some of items she's tried that are now regulars in her diet. It worked for both of our picky kids.

Grandma S. says …

Help! I am a full time grandma of a 2.5 yr old picky eater. who only eats Earth's Best fish nuggets,chicken nuggets and meatballs. She eats grapes and sometimes melon and no veggies except what is mixed in squeeze pouches. How can I introduce veggies and grains and disguise them creatively? Muffins or cookies.... as she will eat that. Thank you for your suggestions.