Try these methods for getting a picky eater to try new foods, making mealtimes less stressful

Battling a picky eater can be frustrating for a parent. Mealtimes are filled with tension and seem to last forever. The baby is in tears, you are near tears, and sometimes the baby doesn’t even eat.

Overcoming picky eating requires a lot of patience and trust. You don’t want to force-feed your child or make them finish everything on their plate, but you also want them to try new things, which they are unlikely to do on their own.

At the end of the day, know that you’re not alone. 20% to 50% of parents describe their kids as picky eaters. The most important thing is to be persistent. It can take up to a dozen times trying a food before a baby will like it. However, there are plenty of ways to mix things up and get your baby to not only try new foods but enjoy them too.

Methods for overcoming picky eating

One key to overcoming picky eating is to start early. When you start introducing your baby to solid foods, that is the time to try new things. Feeding your baby the same bland food every day can limit what they’re willing to tolerate. Here are some tips to make new foods more interesting.

Use different textures

Finger foods are a favorite of young children for a reason. They’re exploring the world and using their hands to grab and touch everything else, why not their food? Adding a variety of textured foods to the rotation will engage their interest and at least prompt them to try something new.

Try wet and dry food like mushy carrots and mashed potatoes, crunchy food like broccoli and peas, and smooth food like hummus and dips. Chop, shred, and spiral food, so their plates are full of different shapes. Many children avoid certain textures as they get older, so the sooner you can introduce them, the better.

Add flavor

Many parents think that bland food is the way to go with young children, that too many spices or flavors will be too much for them to handle. But simple spices and flavors can help.

Sauces, herbs, and spices can be gateways to getting children to try new foods. Use hummus or dips on items they fight against like fruits and veggies to get them used to the taste subtly. For children 12 months or older, adding honey to carrots is a classic example. After a while, you can try removing these add-ons to see if your child will try the food on his own.

Let them play

Letting babies and toddlers play with their food might seem like the wrong approach to teaching proper manners. However, it’s a great way to remove the stress associated with food and make eating fun.

Think about it, before you try a new food item, especially the one you’re uncertain about, you at least give it a sniff before putting it into your mouth. Children are the same way. Let your baby hold, squish, pull apart, smell, and investigate foods. Even if they don’t actually eat anything, at least they’re getting familiar with it.

Get them involved

When your baby is ready to hold the spoon, let them try to feed themselves. You will most likely end up with food on your floors, walls, and ceiling, but your baby will start to feel a sense of independence associated with eating. Plus, it’s exciting for them to have a new tool to explore eating in a new way.

When they get a bit older, you can even let them help with some basic food preparation. The idea is to get them involved and invested in the meal, so they feel accomplished when it’s complete and are less likely to push something away.

Tasks, like stirring, sorting, or picking things from a garden, are perfect for toddlers. Of course, everything should be done with careful supervision.

Use familiar foods

If your child is resisting a new food, try to find something similar that they already like and gradually work your way up to the new food. This method is called Crossing Bridges.

For example, if your child likes mashed potatoes but hates broccoli, try boiling broccoli and sprinkling some onto the mashed potatoes. Gradually increase the amount until you can serve the broccoli on its own. Your child can get used to the taste but not be overwhelmed by it. Using familiar foods as the foundation will make new adventures less sudden and scary.

Don’t underestimate your child’s awareness. It’s usually a good idea to be upfront and explain the changes you’re making. This way, they can expect variety and don’t feel like you’re tricking them into something they don’t like.

It’s all about presentation

When you go to a restaurant and the server brings you a beautiful plate filled with bright colors and surprising textures, how do you react? You might “ooh” and “ahh” or simply have a big smile on your face. Either way, the presentation makes the meal more enjoyable and makes you excited to eat it.

Your baby understands the same feeling. Serving food on brightly colored dishes with fun-shaped utensils can grab their interest or distract them enough to actually try the food on the plate without thinking about it too much. Arranging food in recognizable shapes like animals or using a variety of textures and colors can do the same.

Think outside the box

Starting early and being dedicated to your child’s eating experience will lay the groundwork for a more adventurous eater. You can even include things like taste tests or games such as asking your child whose favorite color that pepper is or what shape does that pile of sweet potatoes remind them of to make things more fun.

It’s important to lead by example. Don’t make faces or overreact when you try something you don’t like. Similarly, don’t deprive your child of something just because you don’t like it. It’s important for them to explore and decide for themselves.

The goal is to make eating less stressful for you and for the baby while trying new things. But remember, they won’t like everything. Even after hours spent trying, there will be the food they still find yucky, just like you do. If you are truly concerned about your child’s pickiness, or they aren’t eating enough, consult your child’s physician for more information.

The Virginia Infant & Toddler Specialist Network helps improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers through extensive resources, services, and education for caregivers. Learn more about how we can help you improve the standard of care.