Exploring New Foods with Picky Eaters
Your Kids Table
 This post was previously published as a guest post on Playing with Words 365 in 2012. However, there are additional updates.
Exploring New Foodswith Picky Eaters

“Picky” eaters are among us, many parents have at least one child that they struggle with at meal times. “Picky” eaters rarely try new foods, sticking only to a few tried and true favorites. What’s a parent to do?  Do you just serve grilled cheese at every meal and beg for a bite of broccoli? How do you get them to even consider trying a new food? It is challenging, to say the least!

We know that kids like consistency, routine, and things that are familiar.  The unknown can be overwhelming and scary for them.  It takes time for a new idea to seem comfortable enough for them to proceed.  The same holds true for new foods. As adults, we take the myriad of foods we eat for granted.  For some kids, a food that is a different color, texture, or shape is very foreign, unknown, and thus overwhelming.  If it is overwhelming and scary, they probably aren’t going to eat it.

Keeping that in mind, it makes perfect sense that they need to get more comfortable with it, right? In order for a kid to get more comfortable with foods they are refusing, they need to interact with it and feel no pressure to eat it.  One of the best ways to achieve that is to play with food.  Radical, I know, and it goes against good manners and the sort. But stay with me here, remember they need to get comfortable with food!

Generally, the first step is to get your child to look at or touch the food. Start there and be creative. You might say something like, “I have a forest growing on my plate (stand up little pieces of broccoli .”  Or, if they already touched it, maybe you can get them to smell it, which will help them get it closer their face (that’s a big step for a “picky eater”).  In this case, you could say, “Wow, my broccoli looks like a bouquet of flowers. I am going to smell my flowers. (You are waiting for them imitate)”  From there you can move onto licking, tasting a small bite, and taking a normal bite.  Also, give them permission to discreetly spit it out.  I know, it’s gross and not very polite, but they may be more likely to try a bite if they know they can get rid of it if it tastes bad to them.  I haven’t had any kid I  work with get inappropriate with spitting it out.  I don’t make a big deal about it and they move past it as they get more comfortable with the food.

Remember the key here is to have them be interested in what you are doing and imitate the action. It IS PROGRESS if they do something new with the food even if they don’t eat it! If they don’t follow your lead try something easier. You will want to follow this general progression, and not move onto something harder until they have demonstrated they can handle that: looking, touching, holding, moving food towards face, touching face with food, smelling, kissing, holding in teeth, taking small bites and spitting out, eating. It is very important that you don’t use these tasks as rewards or a checklist for them. This progression is something you use with play and exploration.

Here are three ways you can set up “play-time” with food:

1. Spend 2-3 minutes at the end of a meal “playing” with any refused foods.  If your child has refused a food(s) at a meal, then before you clean up and move on, see if you can get them to interact with the food at all.  I would avoid this if it is chaotic or your child has had enough of sitting for a meal.  Aim for keeping this short and sweet.

2. Cook and prepare meals with your kids.  Get your kid in the kitchen and help cook, without much help from you, they will be touching and smelling the food.  You can still try some play as you are going, and I would gently encourage sampling of whatever is safe to eat while it is being prepared.

3. Set aside time (outside of a meal) to play with non-preferred foods.  In between meals, set up some food exploration time at a table.  It would be great if this was at a table they don’t normally eat at, so the association isn’t with eating.  Have some utensils for cutting and getting creative.  Most importantly, make sure you have set up food for yourself to play with, too.  Ideally, they have a plate and you have a plate.  You model and they imitate.

A couple of other important notes:

  • Don’t force or try to shove food in, it is counterproductive and you may lose their trust.
  • Just model for the child and encourage them to imitate whatever play you’re initiating.  Don’t hold the food up for them to smell, let them do it.  Hopefully, you will be following their lead.  It is important they have control of the food they are interacting with.
  • Keep it fun.  If your kid gets upset or distracted, then try to end the play quickly and as positive as possible.
  • Be patient.  Don’t expect miracles after 10 minutes, an hour, or even a week. I have been there with my own kid and this may be the hardest part.  It takes time, patience, and consistency.
  • Keep the pressure off.  The goal isn’t eating when you are exploring new foods, just play, and if they happen to eat it — bonus!
  • These strategies aren’t just for new foods.  I know quite well that picky eaters will often stop eating something they previously loved, never to touch it again.  You can certainly employ these tactics for those lost foods, too.


Please note that the above strategies are based on the SOS Approach to Feeding as developed by Dr. Kay Toomey, various other researched feeding strategies, and my personal clinical experience.

I strongly believe in using play to explore new foods because it gives kids a chance to become more comfortable with foods they have no, little, or bad experiences with. However, it is often only one component of overcoming picky eating, especially for extreme picky eaters or problem feeders. Find more strategies in the link list below, follow along by email (also below or in the sidebar) for new strategies, and/or schedule a private consultation to set up a custom plan for your child.

More On Picky Eating

Expand On What Your Kid Is Already Eating

Sensory Processing and Picky Eating

Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating {Book Review}

Managing Family Meals with a Picky Eater

Picky Eater Tip: Use Dips