How to get picky toddler to try new things?

Ask:

My 2 year old won’t even pick new food up to try it. What works for you? Right now he’s on a very limited diet of chicken nuggets and PBJ sandwiches. I’ve got to do something!

Answer:

Answer 1:

I work with kids with autism, who are notorious for being extremely picky eaters. Trying new foods is one of the things we work on with them. Here is the program that has turned a child like yours into one who will at least take a bite or two of anything we put in front of him:

First, make three lists: 1) things he will eat, 2) things he’s eaten before but now refuses to eat, and 3) things he has never tried but you think he’d like if he tried them. List 3 can include pretty different foods, but it can also include foods that are similar to foods that he already likes, but just different enough that he won’t try them.

Now pick something off of either list 2 or list 3 that you want to start with. Let’s pretend it’s macaroni and cheese. We’ll call it our “target” food. There will be several “steps” that you’ll go through for each food, and your first job is to get him familiar with those steps and not scared of them. You can do this by first using a food that he likes.

So first, put a little piece of chicken nugget in front of him and tell him “touch it”. When he does, praise him and give him a food reward, so that he learns to associate trying new foods with a good taste in his mouth. The food reward can be candy, or a piece of PBJ sandwich, or his favorite juice, or a different chicken nugget, etc, but don’t use the same chicken nugget that we are “working on”! Step 2 is “hold it”, step 3 is “smell it”, step 4 is “lick it”, step 5 is “hold it in your mouth”, and step 6 is “eat it”. Make sure after each step you give him a food reward.

Once he is pretty familiar with the steps, you can start using the real target food! So start with “touch it” (let him see the food reward out). Give lots of praise for this and when he touches it, give him the food reward. DON’T tell him to go further unless you can see that he is obviously very comfortable with touching it. If he touches it but looks uncomfortable, then after he does this a couple times and gets the reward, then let him go and take the target food off his plate so that he can see that you’re not going to try to make him eat it. 

Once he is comfortable with touching it (this may take several days), then move on to step 2 (if it’s a messy/slimy food, this can be holding it on a fork or spoon). Once he’s comfortable with that, move on to step 3, and so on. Once he is comfortable eating it, then you can start with another target food! As they acquire more target foods, the new ones start to move faster and eventually, you can put something completely new in front of them and tell them to take a bite, and they will! They also will learn to actually enjoy some of the foods you target! Sounds impossible but I’ve seen it firsthand!

While you are working on these foods, it’s a good idea to try and blend fruits/veggies into whatever foods you can, just so he is getting his nutrients while you work on his food repertoire. Sometimes, if they won’t drink shakes or smoothies, we target those things first, because you can blend almost anything into a smoothie or shake without your kid knowing it!

Answer 2:

Your job is to serve a variety of healthy foods throughout the day (not just chicken nuggets and PBJ). His job is to eat (or not). Healthy toddlers will not starve themselves. If he’s hungry enough, he’ll eat.

Some ways to make meals more fun…
— Let him help with food prep — stirring, pushing buttons on the microwave, pouring in ingredients, etc.
— Let him choose a fruit or veggie at the grocery store.
— Put snacks in an ice cube tray — blueberries in one segment, Cheerios in another, raisins in another, etc. Let him nibble at it while he plays.
— Let him eat with toothpicks instead of silverware.
— If he likes sandwiches, serve a piece of bread or a roll with a meal of meat/veggies. My oldest loved to make bite-size sandwiches by putting a tiny piece of meat and a tiny veggie between two tiny bits of the bread.
— Talk about how different foods help our bodies — protein gives us strong muscles, calcium gives us strong bones, etc.
— Set a good example by letting him see you eat a variety of healthy foods.
— Share foods from your plate.
— Make foods into a smiley face on his plate — strawberries for the eyes, chicken nugget for the nose, carrots for the smile, etc.
— Serve foods with dip — yogurt, peanut butter, Ranch dressing, applesauce, etc. Toddlers love dip.

Most importantly, don’t turn mealtime into a battle. Simply set out the food for meals and snacks, and try to have a conversation. Whenever possible, eat the same foods that he’s eating. You can encourage him to taste new things, but don’t bribe or punish. If he’s not hungry, that’s fine. If he’s hungry later, you can offer him the same choices or another healthy option — apple, banana, yogurt, etc.

Remember that he will not stave himself if you provide him with plenty of food. Children didn’t die in the 1700s because there were no chicken nuggets or PBJ — they ate what they had and probably learned to like most of it, and your son will, too.

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