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Picky eater refusing food

How Do I Get My Picky Eater to Try New Foods? Part 1

Jun 19, 2020

Answer: Try not to say, “try it” or “take a bite.”


New foods can be scary for some kids. The sight of a new food might make them grimace or shudder. They may gag or even vomit when pushed to “try” a new food. Foods that are familiar to you and me, like carrots, berries, and pasta might look like terrifying to a child with a feeding issues or sensory processing differences. Kids do not have the same frame of reference that we do when presented with a new food. As experienced adults, we know how carrots taste and crunch and behave in our mouth; however, to a child with severe picky eating, a carrot can be very overwhelming.

Eating a new food can create a great deal of stress and anxiety for kids. As adults we are often focused on the final step of accepting a new food: The Chew and Swallow Step. There are many smaller steps that kids can accomplish before chewing and swallowing a new food. When we constantly say “try it” to kids, there is an expectation that they will chew and swallow the food…this can be waaaayyyy too big of a step for many kids. As soon as we say, “try it”, we have introduced pressure and per my previous blogs, the research has demonstrated that pressuring kids to eat doesn’t work…in fact it makes food refusal worse.

Here’s another example: If you were terrified of heights and you sought to overcome your fear, you would likely not want to start your therapeutic journey by going to the top of the CN Tower in Toronto and looking down to the ground through the glass floor. That would be waaaayyyy too big of a step. Perhaps you could start by standing on stepping stool in your kitchen, then progressing to a chair, the stair-landing, then the second level at the mall. Maybe over time you would feel ready to climb a lighthouse or go up to a rooftop restaurant. In time and with repeated exposure and desensitization, you might one day feel ready to venture to the top of the CN Tower…but I wouldn’t recommend it as a first step toward overcoming your fear. The same principle applies to kids and their fear of new foods.

Kids learn to eat new foods in steps. Here are the steps starting with just looking:
  • Look at the new food from a distance
  • Look at the new food up close
  • Look at others eat the new food
  • Look at the new food on a separate plate
  • Look at the new food on their own plate
  • Touch the new food (poke with a utensil)
  • Touch the new food (poke with a finger)
  • Touch the new food with palm/open hand
  • Touch the new food (squish and break apart)
  • Touch the new food (put it in an “all done” bowl)
  • Touch the new food (pass it to Dad)
  • Touch the new food (feed it to the dog)
  • Smell the new food
  • Smell the new food (pretend it’s a moustache)
  • Bring the new food toward the mouth, then stop and put it back on plate
  • Pretend to eat the new food (make mouth movements without food in mouth)
  • Kiss the new food
  • Kiss or tap/bump the new food to lips then wipe from lips
  • Kiss or tap/bump the food to lips then lick from lips
  • Lick the new food, then wipe tongue
  • Lick the new food without wiping
  • Bite marks in the new food
  • Bite a piece off and immediately spit-out
  • Bite a piece off and hold food in mouth
  • Bite a piece off and chew once and spit-out
  • Bite a piece off and chew several times and spit-out
  • Chew and swallow!

I counsel parents to try not to always focus on the final step, if they do, they will often feel like they are failing. Instead, I encourage them to identify which step their child is achieving. At which step their child is being successful? Can they touch foods without being distressed? If parents respond no, I ask them “If you were too scared to touch something, is there any way you would put it in your mouth?”

Kids need to work through each sensory step in order to feel comfortable enough to put the food in their mouth. For example, once a child is able to touch and squish foods, parents can focus on reaching the next step of smelling foods. They can do this by modelling smelling versus prompting (aka pressuring) their child to “try it.” They can have fun with food by making food moustaches and encouraging their child to bring the food toward their nose and mouth in a fun, low-pressure way.

Slowly but surely, I see kids move through the steps and inch toward eating new foods.

5 Things to Keep in Mind:

1. Not all foods will be at the same step (your child may kiss carrots, but only touch and smell apples).
2. Kids may stay at one step for quite a long time (your child may lick foods for weeks).
3. Model the step that follows the step your child is achieving (if they are smelling, model kissing).
4. Play with food! Make it fun! (“I can kiss my carrots! I can squish my peas.” “I made a noodle moustache!”)
5. Celebrate small successes. Try not to say “try it”. Try not to always focus on the final step.



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