Trying new foods can be scary for some children. I’ve seen a wide variety of responses to the presentation of new foods. Anywhere from the child calmly pushing the plate away, to screaming and running away. I’ll share some insights and tips on how to help your picky eater participate in exploring new foods.
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Let’s put ourselves in the child’s position for a minute. As a child, they have limited background knowledge and experience on what to expect when eating new foods. Our brains are like hard drives that store and recall memories based on experiences. The younger we are as humans, the less experiences we have to call on to predict what we should expect.
Some children have a very limited data base to call on when they are presented with new foods. The inability to predict what the food may taste like can be very unnerving and can cause a wide range of reactions. Not knowing what to expect can be outright scary to a lot of our children.
As adults we have more experiences and more information to call on as we eat. For example, if you’ve eaten at a Chinese restaurant a bunch of times, and one day see a new Chinese dish you’ve never tried before, you can easily take your previous experiences and make a guess on what that dish might taste like. You’re able to predict based on previous experiences.
To any adult who has eaten minestrone soup, a spoonful of minestrone soup looks just like a spoonful of minestrone soup. To a child with limited data base of what it might taste like, that same spoonful of soup may look like a ladle of “I have no idea what that is. The last time I tried something new I gagged.”
If trying new food is intimidating for your child, the main goal should be to get them to feel safe enough so they participate in the exploration of food.
Here are four “tiny” tips I find work well with getting your child to participate in the exploration of foods. These tips all involve getting your child to feel safe and participate by using smaller than normal utensils and portions. Let’s get creative and see how small we can get.
Tasting spoons are a great way to get children to participate in trying new foods. They are small, look playful, and have bright colors. Imagine going from a table spoon, to a teaspoon, down to a tasting spoon. It is a world of difference when you think about the appearance of the spoons, how it feels in your hand, and how it feels in your mouth.
You can start as small as just dipping the tip of the spoon in the new food.
We are on the borderline of non-existent and micro-tasting when it comes to dipping the tip of a tasting spoon into a new food. Such a small amount might almost be unrecognizable to an adult. That’s where we want to start. If tasting something new is terrifying for your child, a good place to start is an almost undetectable level of taste. See how little they can get on their spoon and bring it to their mouth. The second they’ve independently dipped the spoon, and brought it to their mouth, you’ve gotten them to participate exploring foods! If they don’t taste anything, great! They just had a positive experience where they willingly tried a new food. Now see if you can go back and dip a little more and taste.
At this point they are no longer a child who doesn’t try new foods, because they just did, right in front of you. See if they will dip a little more, then see if they will scoop. Once they are tired of the small amounts, move to a bigger spoon. Understand what level they are comfortable with, and try to push them just past this point. If they refuse, hang out and practice where they were comfortable and participating.
Small, colorful, fun. Three ways to a child’s heart. One approach I like to take have the child hold the empty Dixie cup, and you hold the normal sized cup filled with the new drink. See how tiny of a pour you can make into their little Dixie cup. Start there and see if they can start to explore the drink.
You can use Dixie cups for solid foods too. Offering small amounts, and a small container helps the child understand “ok I have this amount to try. It’s not a big bowl or plate of something new.” Think about the presentation of a quarter of a grape in a Dixie cup, versus a bowl full of grapes.
This is also a great time to make an agreement on how much you’re going to be exploring. Having a small, set, container helps the child understand what exactly the task is and what is expected of them during your time exploring. Build their trust by making an agreement of what the expecation is, and sticking to that.
You can also parse out multiple new foods in multiple Dixie cups as a way to keep the food separated, and give the child a little more control over the situation.
Sounds like a Netflix documentary, but it’s not. Let’s keep going with our theme of tiny and give the child something fun they can use to poke or stab the new food. With your supervision they can use toothpicks, or you can take a coffee stirrer (one of those plastic red ones) and cut it in half. Or you can try a fun kid safe Food Pick (see below) as a way to get your child interested in sitting and trying new foods with you.
See if giving them a “tool” they can use to stab the food, decreases some of the fight or flight instinct we normally see when presenting new foods. The name of the game with little ones is making it fun. Kids like to poke thing. See if they can poke the food in the Dixie cup, and bring it up to their mouth to explore. Try different pokers for different foods. Make a game out of it and see how many pokers they can use as they try different foods.
“The World’s Smallest” Game
This is a fun game I play with my clients in therapy sessions. If we’re working on learning to eat a sandwich, I challenge them to make the world’s smallest sandwich. Be silly and really sell it. I tell them we can call Guinness Book of world records and see how we can set a new record with the absolute smallest sandwich we can make. You can take a picture of it and show another family member just how ridiculously small the sandwich was they made. Children typically enjoy challenges, and they find it funny how the food is so unusually small.
With my tiny chefs, I have made sandwiches, or smores, or tacos, that can literally fit on half of your pinky nail. You can pick off a pea sized piece of bread, a rice sized piece of cheese and meat, another pea sized piece of bread, put it all together and you’ve made the world’s smallest sandwich. If they eat that, see if they can make one twice as big and try that sandwich.
They can also make multiple servings for any willing family members or pets nearby. During this “cooking” process so many great things have taken place without the child noticing.
- They’re sitting down and participating with you
- They’ve looked at all the pieces of food
- They’ve touched multiple pieces of food
- They’ve most likely smelled multiple pieces of food
- They may even be smiling or laughing while participating
- They are in CONTROL of the food they are being asked to eat. They can make it as crunchy, soft, salty, sweet, etc. as they want.
All of these experiences add to their data base of positive memories with new foods.
I’ve found that during this game, the most impactful part of the game is the child feeling in control. They have been given the task to make the sandwich, and they can make it however they’d like. They can also make multiple variations; more bread, less cheese, more chocolate, less marshmallow. Once they’ve made the tiny food, challenge them to see how many bites it will take them to eat.
I usually initiate by showing them how small I can make one and challenge them to make it smaller. This is a little counterintuitive as the adult, you’ve asked them to eat more, or a bigger bite, in the past. Most kids are taken aback by the request and find the game really fun. Getting them out of fight or flight response and getting them into a different, creative space in their brain can help them feel safe in participating with food exploring.
Be patient, be creative, and have fun!
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About the Author
DRAKE HASTINGS M.S., CCC-SLP
Drake Hastings is a speech-language pathologist who specializes in speech, oral motor, and feeding therapy for kids. Drake has a passion for working with children and families while helping children achieve goals using a fun and motivating approach to learning.
Drake’s main areas of focus within the practice are feeding therapy, and speech (sound production) therapy. Drake has experience working with children who are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Apraxia of Speech, Dysarthria, Down Syndrome, and rare genetic disorders. Drake has experience working and collaborating with a wide variety of families and therapeutic team members while treating children of all ages.