Frustrated that your picky eater won’t eat any new foods? I got you, check out my 5 favorite gateway or new foods for picky eaters that can get them eating even more new foods including vegetables and protein!
Let me be perfectly clear, there is no one food that every picky eater will eat. It’s impossible to share a complete list of foods that your picky eater will readily gobble up. But, as a feeding therapist, there are 5 foods that I often use to help picky eaters expand their variety of foods.
To get them eating foods most picky eaters don’t: vegetables and meat. Isn’t that what every parent of picky eater wants?
They are my go-to foods because they are a gateway to more and more foods once your child starts eating them. And, I’ve seen these 5 foods work over and over again with families I’ve treated, Mealtime Works students, and with my own kids.
I’m excited to share with you my 5 favorite foods to work on with any picky eater, no matter how extreme!
Why These Gateway Foods Help Picky Eaters Eat New Foods…
As parents, we often want our kids to eat what we’re eating. Understandable and appropriate. Or, at the very least, eat a few veggies, fruits, and proteins. Carbs never seem to be a problem unless you mix them together or make a sandwich.
Most picky eaters hate food mixed together. Learn how to serve a mixed dish in The Perfect Dinner for Picky Eaters.
The problem is that making the leap from eating a bunch of snack foods and carbs to enjoying those green beans you just sautéed in the pan is a big one.
Too big for most picky eaters.
And so, they just pass on the green beans, and the broccoli, cauliflower, roast pork, chicken breast, steak, asparagus, and other whole veggies and meats. As an occupational therapist, I’m always evaluating what a kid WILL eat, because they are powerful clues in that list of foods.
It can reveal if your child has a preference for spicy, sweet, crunchy, soft, or salty foods.
I then use that preference to my advantage. And, while every picky eater is unique, there are some common patterns among them. That’s how this short list of 5 foods developed. These same foods kept showing up as a helpful stepping stone to all those foods we desperately wish they’d eat.
What If Your Child “Doesn’t Like” These Foods…
The point here isn’t that you’re going to serve any of these foods for dinner and your child is suddenly going to eat them immediately. It isn’t quite that easy, but it’s not painfully hard either. You’ll want to use some of the strategies you’ll learn in the following sections to help your picky eater actually eat these foods. That could take some time. The key is not to give up.
Repetition and consistency are everything with a picky eater.
Don’t accept their claims that they don’t like it. They don’t know if they like it or not, and you can – kindly – tell them that. A child, or adult for that matter, needs to actually chew and swallow a food at least a dozen times before they truly know if they like it or not.
Most picky eaters aren’t doing that. They’re only looking at, touching, smelling, or barely tasting a food and deeming it inedible.
My 5 Favorite Gateway Foods for Picky Eaters
I encourage you to keep an open mind at the following list of foods for picky eaters. They may seem ordinary, but remember there’s a reason each of the foods are on this list and hundreds, if not thousands of parents, have had success with these foods when they followed these serving tips and strategies:
Picky Eater Gateway Food #1: Thin Baby Carrots
Many picky eaters like crunchy foods. They also don’t like bitter tastes.
Carrots are a little sweet and don’t have any strong flavors. AND they are crunchy. Baby carrots are important because they’re smooth. Large carrots cut into sticks can be big and chunky. When I’m first introducing baby carrots to a child, I like to pick the thinnest baby carrots in the bag, not the ones that are thicker than my thumb.
I also look for smooth carrots with no spots or deformations. All of this matters to the picky eater. They take note of any fibers on the carrot or a dry patch because they’re worried about what it will taste like, and will refuse to eat it.
Some kids do well with pre-shredded carrots in a bag from the store too. But, shredding your own carrots often leaves them wet and limp, not good for a picky eater.
Once your picky eater is eating carrots, then you can offer them other similar foods like sliced apples (crunchy, sweet, and stick shaped). And from there, try pears that aren’t too ripe and soft. Not to mention other raw veggies like cucumbers and cauliflower.
Picky Eater Gateway Food #2: Bacon
If you’re picky eater likes crunchy foods and doesn’t have any or a lot of meats/protein, bacon is something I’d serve at least once a week. After repeated exposure, many picky eaters will end up trying a bite because they can see it’s crispy. The taste and flavor of bacon is also something most children will be comfortable with.
Experiment with serving bacon in strips and crumbles. Make sure you only serve a little bit. If you crumble up three pieces of bacon and put a pile on their plate, it could be overwhelming. Less is more when you’re working on new foods for picky eaters.
After your child eats bacon, you can try pan frying ham into strips and then fade them into eating just plain ham and other deli meats.
Picky Eater Gateway Food #3: Muffins
This gateway food is for picky eaters that like softer foods, especially those that gravitate towards pancakes, waffles, or sweets like cupcakes. Try not to focus on uber healthy muffins at first – that will come. Instead, try offering muffins that you think your child would be interested in.
This is a great food to let them pick at the grocery store. Explain that they’re similar to a cupcake (if they like cupcakes). Of course, the store bought muffins from the bakery are probably high in sugar, but remember this is just a gateway.
Your child, if they’re a sugar fanatic, will be more likely to eat these then the spinach muffins with no added sugar you made from scratch for the first time.
Lindsay Ganntt, one of our Mealtime Works students, observed this with her own son. Lindsay loves to cook and is very interested in nutritious meals, but when she allowed her extreme picky eater to pick out whatever pre-packaged muffins he wanted, it opened the door to him eventually eating high protein, low sugar muffins!
You can of course make your own muffins from scratch, they don’t have to be store bought, but get your kid involved in cooking them. Again, think of adding an ingredient you know they love, chocolate chips and peanut butter are good options!
Once they’re eating that initial muffin, you can then slowly try others like pumpkin, blueberry (puree the berries so there aren’t chunks), and zucchini.
Picky Eater Gateway Food #4: Tortilla Chips
Surprised to see tortilla chips? Well, a lot of my students have picky eaters that won’t eat bread. They love chips though and that’s why we start with tortilla chips. If you’re child is already eating tortilla chips, but won’t eat tortillas or other bread, then this is the perfect gateway food for your child.
Start by making your own homemade tortilla chips, it’s way easier than you think. You basically just cut a tortilla into triangles, season with some salt, and put on a baking sheet in the oven until crispy. You can check out a recipe here.
When your child starts to eat your homemade version of tortilla chips, you can then make them less and less crispy until they’re eating soft tortillas! From there, you can introduce pitas and other flatbreads!
Picky Eater Gateway Food #5: THIN Chicken Nuggets
Chicken nuggets might be one of the only foods your picky eater does eat, but believe it or not, a lot of kids won’t go near them. The problem is that they’re often very thick.
Picky eaters will always do better with a new food when it’s as thin as possible because it’s less texture and less to chew.
It’s so important to look for chicken nuggets in your local grocery store that are thin. I recommend the Yummy brand Dino Nuggets (no affiliation) because they’re very thin. They were the first meat, besides bacon, I got my child to eat when he was struggling with extreme picky eating.
BUT, you can also make these chicken nuggets at home too. In fact, once my son was eating the store bought chicken nuggets, I started making these and he loved them. There’s 2 important tricks to making these chicken nuggets so that picky eaters will eat them. If you’ve tried other homemade nuggets and they didn’t work, it’s probably because they didn’t take these 2 necessary tricks into account.
You can also start by exposing your child to homemade chicken nuggets if you don’t have any in the stores near you.
Another important tip is to make the chicken nuggets crispy, if your child likes crunchy foods. To do this, leave them in the pan a little longer so they crisp up or cook for another 5 minutes. Watch closely because if the nuggets get any brown spots that could be a deal breaker for a picky eater.
Once your child is eating these nuggets, try bigger nuggets and chicken strips. Then move to offering thin grilled chicken cut into neat slices!
What If Your Child Repeatedly Refuses to Eat These Foods?
There’s a lot of layers to picky eating, and it is important to have a solid plan to use to help them across the board. You can learn about the first key steps here in this free workshop.
It will be very difficult to have success with these foods if you only try them once or twice. Plan on serving them 1-2 times a week, and you don’t need to do them all. You can start by just focusing on one.
When you serve the food, avoid asking your child if they like it or to try it.
Act like you could care less if they eat it or not, and continue to serve it. If you want to help move the process along, serve yourself some of the same food and begin to play with the food by just touching it. Maybe you pretend your baby carrot is a car flying around the edge of the plate?
Maybe it’s a princess hopping over crackers on her plate? If you’re child is too old for play, then try to talk about the color, shape, and hardness of the carrot from a scientific standpoint.
Keep it casual, fun, and try not to have any expectations. Our kids can feel those expectations even if they’re unsaid and will refuse to eat the new foods we’re desperately hoping they will.
Get More Food Ideas for Picky Eaters!
Grab our Free Meal Ideas for Picky Eaters printable to have A LOT more ideas to help you serve new and different foods to your picky eater that they’ll most likely eat! Print it out and stick it on your fridge.
More Help for Picky Eaters
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 15 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.