This is a guest post from Jill Castle, a registered dietitian/nutritionist specializing in pediatric nutrition. She is the author of Try New Food, The Smart Mom’s Guide to Starting Solids, Eat Like a Champion, and co-author of Fearless Feeding. She’s the expert and voice behind the popular blog and podcast, The Nourished Child. Learn more about Jill and her books, programs, and services here.
Lisa asked me to come back to be a summer guest blogger again, and I’m thrilled to be here! If you didn’t get a chance to read my last posts about sports drinks for kids and why kids with ADHD aren’t hungry, take a gander now. For today, I’m tackling picky eaters—and not just the toddler! I’ll be chatting about older, extremely picky kids.
Picky eating drives parents nuts, but what makes them even more frustrated is the child who refuses to try new foods. The child who is disinterested, too busy, set in his ways, or quite possibly, maybe disgusted and anxious when he’s around food.
Fancy cut-out sandwiches and veggie-based smoothies aside, many parents I know want to transform their picky eater into a healthy eater. They’re not interested in waiting out this maddening phase of selective eating, nor are they willing to accept picky eating as the new norm.
They want to do something.
And they want to do it now.
However, this is where some parents get themselves into trouble. They try to bribe or force bites of new or disliked food. They scold their child for not trying a taste. They jump through hoops, making different meals to get their child to eat.
But, guess what? These tactics mostly don’t help. In some cases, they make things worse.
What parents need to know about picky eating
Perhaps you’ve got a toddler who is moving through the usual childhood developmental phase or an older child who’s been a picky eater for a while. Regardless of your situation, there are positive ways to interact with, motivate, and support your picky eater.
In my workbook, Try New Food: How to Help Picky Eaters Taste, Eat, & Like New Foods, I cover the basics of helping any picky child learn about, experience, and taste new foods.
No matter what type of picky eater you have, you need to be clear on:
- Why picky eating is happening.
- What to feed your child (even if he is limited in food choices).
- How to feed him with positive parenting techniques.
- Whether your expectations and motivations are in the right place.
- Strategic ways to get kids involved with food.
- Where you’re headed (the end goals).
While most parents recognize that ‘this too shall pass,’ there is a subset of parents who cannot see an end in sight. These are the parents of extremely picky eaters. They need new insight and extra support. When I wrote Try New Food, I had parents of all picky eaters in mind.
What extreme picky eaters (& their parents) need
When kids are incredibly picky with food, you need a different approach. As a parent, you need a keen understanding of why picky eating has a stronghold.
You need a strategic approach that helps your child make progress, even if it’s at a snail’s pace.
Your child needs a pleasant, peaceful way to experience new foods. He needs a low pressure, low expectation environment. Also, he needs lots and lots of understanding, support, and patience.
In my years of working with families as a pediatric nutritionist, I’ve culled the current research and developed practical techniques that reflect principles of cognitive behavioral therapy, food chaining, antecedent manipulation, pediatric nutrition, effective feeding practices, and childhood developmental norms.
The Nourished Child® path to trying new foods
This approach to helping picky eaters try new foods represents my philosophy of using a “whole child” approach to nutrition for all kids. Here’s a small glimpse of my system for extremely picky eaters, adapted from Try New Food:
- Choose try-it bites for the week
Choose three new foods to try for the week. This approach works best when your child is part of the process. Ideally, these foods will be ones your child is interested in trying.
Alternatively, the food can be an extension of food your child already likes and eats. For example, if he likes French fries, you could try sweet potatoes fries. Eventually, the new foods will be your child’s idea, but you may need to provide suggestions or brainstorm with him in the beginning.
Your child will taste or have an experience with each of these three foods daily during the week.
- Small bites and few foods
The goal here is to underwhelm your child with new food. I want your child to look at the try-it bites of food and feel confident and unintimidated. As such, you’ll use tiny bites of food—use the size of your thumbnail or pinky nail to estimate the size of a try-it bite.
Don’t offer more than the three different foods you’ve chosen for the week at a tasting session. For really sensitive kids, you may be starting with just one try-it bite food. Remember, the goal is to underwhelm your child, not overwhelm him.
- Private or supported tastings
Your child may be sensitive to the environment in which he is trying new foods. Find a setting that is stress-free and with minimal distractions. For example, a quiet corner of the kitchen, dining room, or a parent’s home office might work best. Try-it bites at mealtime are discouraged.
Some children may want to try new food alone, while others will want the support of a parent, sibling, or caretaker. Decide who will participate in try-it bites with input from your child. Any supportive person must be neutral and avoid using pressure to eat, bribes of dessert, or threats of punishment.
- Tasting versus testing
Some kids will need to start by testing their food, such as touching it, smelling it, or interacting with it before they bring it to their mouths. For example, peeling a clementine, touching mashed potatoes, or smelling a pineapple.
If your child is ready to taste the food, let me remind you: tasting is not eating. Tasting is everything but eating: kissing the food, putting it in the mouth and taking it out, chewing food and spitting it out. Tasting is progress!
- Tracking progress
If he is able, have your child document his food experiences. If he can’t, do it for him.
Did he enjoy or like the experience or taste of the food? Did he dislike it? Is he ambivalent, or not sure yet? Journal each tasting experience. It will help you and your child understand his picky eating better and inform future try-it bite challenges.
Helping picky eaters become healthy eaters
There’s more to the story of helping children try new foods, including positive feeding techniques, family meals, and considerations for nutrition. Try New Food enables you to work through the individual characteristics of your picky eater in positive ways while helping your child learn to like new foods, grow well, and become the healthy eater you want him to be.
Try New Food also provides you with additional resources, charts, and forms, and doubles as a journaling exercise as you make your way through the workbook.
Do you have a picky eater? What’s your biggest challenge right now? Please share with me in the comments!
23 thoughts on “5 Steps to Get (Older) Picky Eaters to Try New Foods!”
I have a 6 year old daughter who will only eat Mashed Potatoes, Funyuns, Oreos, Pringles (sour cream & onion) and that’s all. She will not even try anything new. I have been trying to get her to try new foods for 3 years without any luck.
Oh wow, I thought I had it bad. My 6 year old will only eat plain noodles grilled cheese, scrambled eggs, SOME fruits (no veggies) one type of chicken nugget and Mac and cheese. But oreos Funyuns and chips? That seems like the road to obesity. I would check in with her doctor about what to do there.
My little brother is now 6 years old and has become very picky while eating. He just craves nothing but fast food every time although we do try to make him adopt a healthy diet. He is literally giving us a hard time in making him develop a taste in a healthy diet. I hope the steps mentioned here helps us in making him develop a healthy taste.
Hopefully they’ll help you out. Let us know if you need any other recommendations. – Nicole
I can relate to this Jill! I used to be a picky eater when I was a kid, and my mom used to prepare different meals every day. Unfortunately, I’m still a picky eater even if I’m already an adult, and I always crave for something new to eat. In the past few years, UK High Street became my go-to whenever I’m looking for something to munch. The store offers different delicacies from breaded scampi bites to delicious chips for snacking, along with different kinds of cheeses and drinks that you’ll surely love too.
Great post, and a comprehensive guide to getting your child to eat a more varied diet.
Love the advice about tasting not being eating. I had heard that a child has to keep trying a food a few times so to keep offering it. Only after several times will I let my little one tell me that she doesn’t like it.
It can be a real struggle. My little one loves sweetcorn this week, but next week she will wrinkle her nose and only want peas!
SO my advice is to keep offering and trying new things constantly.
I great to loved reading this post. I’m an occupational therapist specializing in feeding. I work with extremely “picky eaters” everyday and there is SO much to consider about why they don’t want to eat. Thank you for taking on the whole child approach and sharing your knowledge and expertise. I was really excited to read your content and share the same viewpoints.
My niece is a picker she even doesn’t have anything favorite she just like smoothies and anything in the liquid and does not want to eat anything in the solid form. She doesn’t have any medical issues but still…….she is giving us a hard time to develop an eating habit in her.
My son, now 5, is becoming more and more picky. He has no “true” issues (like textures), it’s his head. He just declares he doesn’t want something and won’t even take a taste. He doesn’t get an alternate meal – he will choose to go without dinner (even when he was 2).
The story I repeat often is how I took his brother to Wendy’s (rare) and he saw chili and thought it looked good (odd, since he’s not a big meat or tomato fan). So I made chili – all three kids at multiple bowls! Yeah! So I made the same recipe the next week – and my picky eater wouldn’t eat it. It’s been years and he still won’t touch chili. He has just simply declared he doesn’t like it and sticks to that.
One meal that is sucessful in our house is what we simply call “Mexican”. We have soft tortilla shells, refried beans, shredded chicken, and all the fixins. So each kid can customize – yes salsa, no salsa; yes cheese, no cheese; rolled into a burrito, folded flat into a quesadilla.
Giving your child a little more autonomy with the meal set up you use is very helpful to all children, but especially picky ones. I would be curious to know if your child had a negative experience with eating when he was younger (perhaps not with you). I’ve had many clients where I could trace back an episode of vomiting, an allergic reaction, or even getting scolded for not eating (enough, fast enough, etc) and that experience tainted food acceptance. Kids who have sensitive personalities/temperaments seem to be more affected by negative interactions and experiences from my experience.
This is very encouraging for me with my 14 year old son who seems really disgusted by food he doesn’t like. I never feel he is trying to be manipulative and he’s an only child so it’s not crazy for me to cater to him, since it’s usually the 2 of us eating together.
He seems to have always had a versions to mushy textures and likes crunchy and crispy food, so unfortunately that means a lot of fried food.
I’ll try to approach it as you described. I am usually very patient with him, and my overall goal is to not make food a huge issue that becomes a power struggle or just too much of a focus. But I’d like him to want to eat healthy, then I could help him figure out how to make that happen.
Thank you for your focus on older, extremely picky kids! Any other resources you have would be welcome. I’m not sure if you have a book or other paid materials.
Leslie in So Cal
When we fight or pressure kids who are more sensitive to kids, we make them more turned off, as I think you intuitively know. Try New Food will help you create a system for moving forward with different foods. I have a few podcast episodes on the topic which I think you’ll find helpful: https://jillcastle.com/podcast/arfid-stephanie-elliot/ and https://jillcastle.com/podcast/sensory-issues-alisha-grogan/ as well as this additional article: https://jillcastle.com/childhood-nutrition/arfid-treatment/
Thank you very much! I’ll check it out!
My 6 and 3.5 year old are also picky, and my husband used to be extremely picky when we first met. My 6 yr old is getting better, but my little guy still has strong feelings against most food if it’s not fruit, nuggets or pasta. I loved a lot of these tips and plan to try them and also check out your other articles! Thank you! I work as a health coach and speak with adults who say they ‘don’t really like fruits and vegetables.” How can I get adults to try new things and eat more variety in their diet besides the occasional salad?
When it comes to adults, the motivation has to come from inside, I believe. Of course, any time someone wants to really change their behavior it’s generally bc they see a real benefit to doing so (feeling better, lighter, etc), so the key is probably tapping into the individual hopes & desires.
I absolutely loved reading this post. I’m an occupational therapist specializing in feeding. I work with extremely “picky eaters” everyday and there is SO much to consider about why they don’t want to eat. Thank you for taking on the whole child approach and sharing your knowledge and expertise. I was really excited to read your content and share the same viewpoints.
Absolutely and keep up the good work!
This was a great read!
My picky eaters are my fiancé and his 12 year old daughter! Over the past 2.5 years I have been able to open them up to a lot more than they were used to.
Tonight I made a lasagne with grated carrot and zucchini inside, and some grass fed ground beef. Neither bat an eye at it! It was completely organic, real food.
It took a LOT of baby steps.
Congrats!! It’s a marathon, not a race…:)
My kids eat many different fruits and veggies and proteins. The problem is a dinner in which foods are cooked together. They typically will reject any dinner meal. They like all things raw…love sashimi! How do I get them to eat a home cooked dinner??? They don’t even like pasta with red sauce only butter. Any advice on this? Thanks!
It’s pretty typical for kids to like their food to be recognizable, familiar and safe. When we “mix” things into casseroles, etc, kids may have a harder time identifying what they’re eating, and simply reject it. My own kids took many years to warm up to something like lasagna! What I recommend is that you deconstruct complicated dishes into their parts (the tummy doesn’t know the difference anyway). So, for example, spaghetti and meatballs would be served as spaghetti noodles, sauce, meatballs — all separated. Your kids could “build it” the way they desire. You don’t have to go crazy with this idea though! I wouldn’t expect you to deconstruct chili, for example. For those hard to separate dishes, you could offer them on a “learning plate” — this plate is for exploration (touch, smell, taste), and eating is not required. I would encourage you to continue to offer things they reject, because familiarity is part of the solution, so kids need to be comfortable and familiar with foods before they dive in. Good luck!
Yes, having picky eaters in the house can be really tough! I often recommend using a family style approach to serving meals and it works for so many families! Especially in removing pressure and promoting autonomy. I have 2 articles on my site you might find helpful:
Pre-plating vs. Family Style Meals: https://jillcastle.com/childhood-nutrition/food-plater/
How to do Family-style Meals: https://jillcastle.com/fast-family-food/benefits-basics-family-style-meals/
Hope those help! ~Jill
I have two picky eaters. My son age 3.5 and my daughter is 6. I feel like this especially hard on me or maybe I’m being hard on myself. I have a MS in nutrition and I know how important a healthy diet is and a healthy relationship with food. For all the knowledge I have I can’t even seem to get them to eat things they used to like, let alone try new things. I have made the mistake of getting into power struggles, and dinner time was becoming a battle ground. Recently, after becoming inspired by another 100 Days blog post, I made a change to the way we eat dinner. Instead of plating everyone’s food I put everything on the table and they get to choose what they want. My daughter is receiving this well and chooses different things even veggies sometimes. For the most part it has taken away the stress of dinner time. My son is happy too but will only choose one or two things to eat, the other night for instance he only ate strawberries and olives. I know it is a process and will take time. I am finding it hard to keep my mouth shut to avoid the power struggle. I want so bad for them to eat better.