You’ve Tried Everything, Now What? How To Introduce New Food to Kids (Part 3)
This is the third installation to my 3-part series, How to Introduce New Food to Kids. I wrote this to help parents with resistant eaters, because they can be really frustrating! I showcased the practical aspect of introducing new foods to kids here.
But sometimes you’ve tried it all, and don’t know what to do next. Maybe you need to back off on the pressure. Maybe you need a professional. When someone tells me they’ve tried all the tricks, I tend to believe them, and look hard to find unique solutions.
Today, there is more information about picky eaters, from why it happens and when, to what works and what doesn’t. My co-author, Maryann, ran a great series on picky eating that I think you’ll find very helpful, and I have recently discussed the older picky eater here. But today, I am going to share some unique approaches to the older picky, or resistant, eater that I have used in my professional practice.
Often, parents have tried everything to get their child to eat. Discipline, bribing, strong-arming, pushing, encouraging, catering or even sneaking ingredients in foods that are already accepted. Parents (and kids) get frustrated because these efforts often don’t work—in fact, many of them backfire, causing more resistance!
If you have an older child who is resistant, you may notice it’s more difficult to convince them to try new foods. Cajoling, reasoning and even ultimatums may make the older child dig in his heels, and many parents give in, or decide they don’t want a contentious relationship with their child. Yet, I have found that many older kids want to try new foods and want to be able to eat, they just don’t know how to go about it, or feel they can’t.
The key here is to work with your child, developing a partnership. You will have to be respectful of your child’s food limits and hesitations, and support him through the process I will outline shortly. After all, he is the uncomfortable one! Your child will do better if he knows he can trust you to quell the pressure, listen to his feedback and respect his limits. Try to understand your child’s motivation to expand his food choices, ease social situations and feel better about his eating. Many kids just want to spend the night at a friend’s house, or go to the local pizza joint on Friday night—this is the goal, so gently remind your child why he is on this mission.
The resistant eater may need to move at a slower pace with new foods. This is important to keep in mind, so your expectations are in the right place. Exposure (seeing food at the table, watching others eat, etc) may not be enough for someone who’s been refusing food for a while.
Here are a few things to consider and try—remember, make sure your child is on board for this experience:
Change Your Thinking
Professionals have long advised exposure as the key element to success. If sensory challenges make trying new foods problematic, your child may look at the food in a passive or fearful way, avoiding engagement. Many children also sense the expectation to eat from their caregiver, and this may feel like pressure, making it harder.
Instead of exposure, focus on exploration, letting children explore food at their comfort level and pace. Often, telling an older child that they don’t have to eat it, but can smell, touch, hold or lick it melts away the pressure.
Try a Learning Plate
In Fearless Feeding, we talk about using a Learning Plate (used by Kay Toomey of the Star Center), centered in the table, containing the foreign foods your child may be reluctant to try. This Learning Plate allows exploration without the expectation of eating. The learning plate is separate from the dinner plate and can be used for all members. Let kids touch, smell, or even kiss a food on the Learning Plate.
Privatize the Tasting Experience
Some children don’t want to try new food in front of others, especially those who may have teased them or made negative comments about their eating. Sometimes, letting children try new foods in a private environment, or with a trusted adult, helps. This is where I’ve seen dads, moms and older siblings play a positive role. Or, the child may be old enough to be alone with the tasting experience.
Make it Part of the Daily Routine
Pick a time that is mutually agreeable for trying new foods. After school and before snack is a good time when kids are hungry and may be open to tasting. Try to do this process each day of the week. Start with very small bites of food, and choose two to three different foods with your child. You may include a familiar, acceptable food to increase your child’s comfort. Work with these selected foods for a week, then pick two to three new foods for the following week (with your child’s input).
Sometimes, starting with a crunchy food, like a cracker, primes the mouth for new textures or flavors. Remember, even touching the food or holding it counts as progress for a resistant eater.
Use a Progress Chart
Create a weekly chart that lets your child list the foods he is trying each day. Use a ‘thumbs up’ for liking or being okay with the food, and a ‘thumbs down’ for a no-go. Have your child write down her observations about the food (it’s yellow, looks sticky, looks wet, smells sweet…). You may be able to understand which senses are heightened and problematic. Get specific—“I just don’t like it” is not enough—encourage your child to think about why she doesn’t like it. This is key to understanding and helping him move through challenging foods.
Encourage and Praise
Praise your child for her efforts, and acknowledge that trying new foods isn’t easy. Working together with your child (and letting him be part of the decisions and process) can make this a pleasant experience.
As always, if these efforts at home make things worse for your child, or you are seeing no improvement, go to the next level and seek professional assistance with a feeding specialist (feeding-trained occupational therapist or speech therapist).
So let’s hear it, what’s your biggest challenge in getting your child to try new food? What’s your biggest success?