Is there a more difficult challenge than getting kids to try new foods?  Some kids willingly tuck right into the unfamiliar, but most of our tykes are at least a little reluctant, especially if they’re between 1 and 3.  Don’t tear your hair out, and don’t give up.

The key to getting kids to try new foods is to help them develop the right mindset.  It’s not about the food – after all, how could it be if they haven’t tried it yet?

When kids say, “I don’t like it,” about foods they haven’t tried, you need to hear, “I don’t want to eat it right now.”  Your job is to figure out why. See What “I Don’t Like It” Really Means.

Here are some possible reasons why kids won’t try new foods.  Figure out which one (or ones) applies to your situation and start turning your tot’s new-food-eating around.

  • Fear the food will taste bad. Kids who are worried that the food will taste bad, need to have more information about the food. Unlike adults who have a large collection of eating experiences to draw from, kids have no basis for knowing what something new tastes like.  That makes tucking-in (or even tentatively tasting) an extraordinarily dangerous activity.  Reduce the risk by teaching these kids to be detectives. The more clues they collect – does the food look crunchy, soft, or like another food they like – the more adventurous they’ll be.  See Look into My Crystal Ball for more. 
  • Fear of new experiences in general.   Some children are more cautious in general, and food is just another area where they tread timidly.  These kids really benefit from incorporating more variety into their diets using their tried-and-true favorites. The more these kids get in the habit of eating different tastes and textures, the more willing they will be to try other, different, tastes and textures. See The Variety Masquerade and Variety? But My Kids Won’t Eat It! for more on this topic.
  • Immature taste buds.  Kids are born with a preference for sweet, bland foods and they need to mature into enjoying a wider range of flavors. One way to help them do this is to link favorite foods with new foods by using a familiar flavor such as ketchup, teriyaki, or cheese.  But don’t stop there.  You can “use” other components of favorites to “wean” your kids.  Do they love chicken nuggets? Serve other nugget-type foods such as fish sticks, or falafel.  Or serve the chicken in different forms. See For Extreme Fruit and Vegetable Avoiders.
  • Engaged in a control struggle. These kids need to have their grab for control redirected. Distraction is the name-of-the game for lots of parenting challenges.  It works here too.  Give these kids control over all the little choices: which plate, which seat, which of 2 foods and the control struggles will subside.  Better yet, turn them into food critics. Give them rating stickers, create a chart, or in some other way record their reviews.  But don’t drop poorly received ratings from the menu; simply reintroduce – and rate – them again and again. See Turning Your Kids Taste Buds Around.
  • Too much pressure.  Some children who are especially sensitive to the pressure their parents place on them to try new foods respond by eating less, not more.  The key to getting these kids to try new foods is to make the task seem less daunting.  Do this by giving these children extremely small tasting portions. It will make them feel like they can succeed.  Think in terms of raisins, sunflower seeds, and single peas for appropriate portion sizes.  Use the less-is-more strategy when it comes to eating, not just tasting, too. See When Less is More.

In addition, all kids will accept new foods more readily if the new food isn’t always broccoli, spinach, meatloaf or fish.  Of course, most kids eat a new flavor of ice cream without even noticing it, but if you point out that it is new that will change their idea of new. Mix up the new-food-experience with yummy finds and your kids will become less resistant over time.

Whatever you do, don’t give up.  Research shows that it can take around a dozen exposures before some children will even try something new. Most kids will give it a go before then, but there’s no substitute for perseverance. Remember, you’re not just expanding your children’s palates, you’re creating a new culture too.

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~