Food acceptance. Experiencing selective eating with kids is incredibly frustrating for parents and caregivers. Here are some ways to boost your child’s willingness to eat and combat picky eating.
Introducing your babe to solid foods often doesn’t go exactly how we think it might when we become parents.
What we think feeding our kids is going to be like:
“Oh, this is so fun! You’re such a good eater. Look at those cute chubby thighs.”
What feeding our kids is actually like:
“Why won’t you eat anything?! You literally said that was your favorite food three days ago…. and now it’s on the floor.”
If this is you, you’re not alone mama. We admit that our toddlers eating preferences baffle us too. How is it possible that they same food they LOVED yesterday they refuse to eat today?
While picky eating phases are normal and often related to growing toddler independence, it doesn’t make it less frustrating.
Here’s what works.
How to Encourage Food Acceptance
Improve your child’s willingness to try new foods using evidence-based approaches that encourage new food acceptance without pressure.
This also makes mealtimes more bearable for both you and for your babe: win-win.
1. Give baby some food freedom.
Let them choose! Giving them an option puts some decision-making power in their court. “Do you want X or Y?” over “What do you want?”
The latter is an open-ended question that is most likely to be answered with: 1) something you don’t even have in the house, 2) something you wouldn’t have offered as an option, or 3) something unhelpful that makes zero sense (often some sort of potty talk, are we right boy-mamas?).
Instead, try something like this:
- “Would you like broccoli or peas tonight?”
- “Do you choose carrots or sweet potatoes?”
- “Would you rather have yellow fruit or purple fruit with breakfast?”
2. Offer smaller portions.
Serving small portions helps to take the pressure off and increases their likelihood of giving a new food a try.
If you set a plate loaded with piles of food, this can be overwhelming to baby and turn them off to eating anything altogether.
Plus, this will probably lead to more wasted food and frustration for you in the end.
Starting with smaller portions allows the chance to ask for seconds, or thirds even!
3. Use words that describe aesthetics.
Talking about a new food in terms of its color, shape, texture, or appearance is much more engaging than calling it “yummy”.
Plus, saying things that are meant to be encouraging, like “doesn’t that look delicious?” may actually feel pressure-driven to your baby and have the opposite effect.
Instead, try out some adjectives, like this:
- “This apple is crunchy and tart.”
- “These potatoes are crispy and creamy.”
- “That broccoli is super green, like Oscar the Grouch!”
4. Try food-chaining.
Your child already has a list of foods he/she enjoys and you know will usually be accepted without an issue.
Serving a new food with 1-2 other favorites extends a safety net to your child.
The level of comfort provided by the presence of a familiar food may be enough to encourage them to explore a new food confidently.
For example, if you know she likes spaghetti with marinara, you can try spaghetti with marinara and a bit of lentils added (or on the side).
5. Lead by example.
Whether we like it or not, our kids are always watching and learning from us.
Set a good example and show your child what new food acceptance looks like in practice.
This gives them the blueprint for what positive food behavior looks like.
6. Invite your child into the kitchen.
Involving your child in the process of preparation makes the experience of a new food more fun!
Allowing your child to help make some decisions around meal planning, setting the table, and actually making the food itself can make it more enticing.
Even little kids can have jobs in the kitchen, like mixing, handing you items, or pouring pre-measured ingredients into a bowl.
If they’re older, they may be able to peel, use the blender, or help pack their own lunch.
Keep these things in mind
Feeding picky eaters can be challenging but studies continue to show that a no pressure method with continued exposure is the best way to go.
That means letting them try new foods at their own pace, and in their own time. It also means that this takes time.
Ugh, we know. It can seem like an endless phase, but remember that nutrition is a long game. It’s your job to provide the food and it’s your child’s job to eat.
Food acceptance can take some time to cultivate, especially when you’re trying to combat picky eating. We know that selective eating with kids is incredibly frustrating, but know that it’s just a phase and there are some ways to improve the situation.
Chime In: Have you struggled with picky eating in your home? What have you found to be helpful?
Found this post helpful? Share it! And check out some of these, while you’re at it:
Carla Bern says
For those of us who didn’t start off this way from birth, do you have more suggestions on making the shift? My 3 year old, for example, eats bread basically every meal. We offer a variety of other healthy options, but this “phase” has been going on for nearly a year and I am only seeing other options leave her exclusive acceptable food list (e.g. she used to love chickpeas, but now won’t touch them if served). She has never even eaten an apple because she refuses to try it, so it is hard to relate to the posts that recommend combining less liked foods with liked ones (like carrots and apples).
I love your insights and very much appreciate this site and look forward to your book being available in Germany. Thank you so much for filling this needed gap of helpful summaries on evidence based plant-based nutrition for young children.
Hi Carla. Is her food list reducing? For selective eaters who seem to eat less and less, then we’d recommend discussing this with your Pediatrician. What about offering some toppings on the bread? Does she do well with other similar foods, like pasta? Food chaining might be a good tactic here. For more selective picky eaters, we do recommend working with an OT or a SLP to help with food introduction. You can talk to your MD about referrals– I’m not sure how the process works in Germany. For picky eaters, we also recommend a multivitamin to help cover nutrient gaps while we try to work in nutrition from foods.