How to get fussy kids to try new foods

Kendo Kai enjoys ‘go’ foods.

A while back I posted ‘Please help Vegie Smugglers, my child only eats…’ which included the line “not trying is NEVER an option – our deal is TWO big bites”. Ever since I’ve had a string of emails…’but how do you get your kids to TRY new things?’

Like all parenting advice, different tactics work for different kids and this post just covers how I approach it. Who knows, maybe there will be an idea or two that you can apply at your place.

Firstly, work out if you child’s fussing at mealtimes is behavioural or medical. It’s normal for kids (starting about 18 months) to exercise a bit of self-determination and provide you with some pretty frustrating feeding moments. BUT, other kids may have genuine medical problems that you will need to seek professional help to overcome.

Most kids on the autism spectrum are fussy feeders. They need special consideration. If your diagnosis is recent or you’ve just been so overwhelmed dealing with everything else and have only just started to tackle food issues, then visit here for some excellent information that may help you.

If you child gags or vomits at mealtimes, they might have motor skills delays or a hypersensitive gag reflex. There’s information about that here.

Other kids may have digestion problems that cause discomfort and indigestion – pretty hard for a 2 year old to convey. Again, you’ll need medical advice to help you with these issues.

But if none of these apply to you and your child is still being a dinnertime MONSTER, you might want to follow some of these strategies…

1. Relax

Smile. Don’t get worked up. Keep everything positive. Freaking out about this entire subject only increases mealtime tension and won’t get you anywhere. Try to focus on feeding the entire family well, rather than fixating on what one child is/isn’t eating. Don’t let a frustrating toddler hold you to ransom. But at the same time…

2. Make a list of the foods your child does eat

You may be pleasantly surprised to realise that they do actually eat more than you thought. If the number of items is less than 20 then definitely have a chat to your GP about it next time you’re there.

3. Change your (& their) expectations & behaviour

There’s a good PDF download here about setting and meeting expectations and changing behaviour. Just change ‘employee’ to ‘child’ as you read and you’ll have a few interesting things to think about. Basically, you’ve got to put a behavior system in place around mealtimes. Let your child know what is expected of them. Reward them (with positive reinforcement) when they meet these expectations.

In my house, it is expected that my kids will come to dinner happily, with an open mind. They will be appreciative of the person who’s cooked their dinner and thank them by taking two big bites.

Why two? The first bite of something new is often unwelcome. Keep in mind that humans are programmed to be suspicious of new foods. It’s how we’ve survived for centuries without being poisoned to extinction. So the first bite is the ‘shock’ bite and it’s the second bite that allows them to relax and actually taste.

Over time my kids have come to trust that I’ve tried to cook something that they are quite likely to enjoy. Often, this basic deal is all it will take. A couple of bites into a tasty dinner and they might be happy to continue on. Great!

BUT. Sometimes they won’t like dinner. If they’ve genuinely tried it and don’t like it then they can have something else and I won’t fuss. I don’t cook twice but just let them have buttered bread, cheese, yoghurt, banana – something simple but filling.

If I’m trialing a new dish that I know is a fair way out of their comfort zones, then I make sure I’ve got fresh bread on hand as a backup. I find my success rate is about 50/50. But I would urge you to try the occasional ‘leap’ – I’ve been pleasantly shocked to see my kids happily tucking into (and enjoying) some pretty challenging dinners.

In the early days of this system, my kids would sometimes refuse to eat their two bites. Which meant they ate nothing. That’s their choice. I would let them go hungry rather than resort to unhealthy food. Hold firm – they won’t starve themselves to death. Even the fussiest first world children are extremely well nourished. You may just find that they are much more compliant tomorrow once genuine hunger has set in.

At this point it may be worth noting that I don’t reward my kids for eating. Research has shown that rewarding kids for eating food is ineffective in the long term. And never EVER force them to eat or force them to overeat. Children often need far less food than we think.

Now, getting back to that list of ingredients that they do eat….

4. Give yourself the best chance of success

Make dinners based around ingredients they do like. They like meat? Give them a hamburger with smuggled chickpeas, smothered with beetroot dip. They like cheese? Try cheesy pots with grated or blitzed vegies. Make dinners that they ought to enjoy. Build up the trust that you’re going to present them with yummy stuff. Find a few standard meals and then keep pushing them gradually further and further out of their comfort zones. It’s really important to keep up variety so that new becomes normal and they stop fussing every time they don’t recognize something. And keep in mind that you need your kids to be hungry at dinner. Try cutting out snacks in the afternoon and make dinnertime earlier.

5. Teach them why they eat

I love the concept of ‘go’ foods and ‘slow’ foods rather than ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods. My kids understand that certain foods provide the nourishment we need to live happy, energetic lives. They understand that dinner is a great opportunity to enjoy a stack of ‘go’ foods to fuel them up for tomorrow.

The other side of this is that I also don’t make ‘slow’ foods taboo. Enjoy treats without guilt. All food is ok, just educate kids about how often they should eat different things. You’d be surprised by some of the crap we eat in our house. It’s not a big deal. We enjoy pizza, especially since we don’t have it very often. We do sometimes note though, how sluggish we feel after this ‘slow’ food.

Share with them a love of good food and of the social side of sharing a meal with people you love.

6. Life & food education

Once you’re past the panic stage and your child is accepting more foods, keep the variety coming and start into a new phase of food education, including shopping together (teach them how to choose good produce and get them to do it) cooking together (start with fun recipes like these pancakes), eating together (even if it’s just Sunday brunch and one or two nights a week) and gardening (show them where food comes from). Give them a couple of choices for dinner and get them to practice decision-making.

Model good behavior and healthy choices. Exercise together. Don’t diet or fuss about your weight in front of your child. Keep mealtimes happy (it’s a great chance for communication).

And remember, be consistent. Like all aspects of parenting, the second you waiver, your child will pounce. They’re canny like that.

Phew! What a long post! Thanks for sticking with me – I hope there are some ideas here to help you.

Some of my standard dinners for really fussy toddlers….

Chicken & lentil sausage rolls
Cheesy Pots
Lamb meatballs
Salmon pikelets
Tuna bites
Ravioli with orange sauce


8 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    snipznsnailz said,

    This is a great post. I personally HATE nearly all veggies and so called “health food”. I have to trick myself into eating them. I throw frozen broccoli into the pot when I make mac n cheese. While the noodles boil the broccoli steams and the timing is usually perfect and I only used one pan.

  2. 2

    Anna said,

    I have a 19-month-old and was so despairing at meal times when my normally gorgeously happy boy, became a fussy, teary tantrum-thrower. However, I have invested in the vege-smuggler cookbooks, am a regular viewer of your website and blogs and often cook the majority of my meals from your recipe repertoire. I have held firm to cooking only one meal (with bread and banana on hand just in case) and I feel I’ve gotten through the worst (fingers crossed). My little boy doesn’t cry and fuss at meals any more, he always tries his food, and if he doesn’t want it, he calmly hands me his plate. It frustrates me when he loves something one day, and rejects it the next, because I think I’m onto a winner, but … I don’t despair, because I know on the whole he eats a well-balanced diet and he’s putting on weight in a healthy way. Thanks, vege-smugglers, for helping me to gain control and confidence in a difficult situation.

  3. 4

    Kathy said,

    Thank you for this post! I was directed here from FB, I have a 3.5 yr old son, who is my fourth child and he is being a pain in the tushie with his eating the last few months. Has frustrated me no end in trying to cook things he will like – we have moved right away from processed foods, so it has been an interesting few months for us all, but overall, the other 5 members of our family are enjoying the foods and changes 🙂 He used to eat anything put in front of him, and all the other children have always been wonderful eaters. Stumped on the fourth lol

  4. 6

    Kelly Case said,

    I have a child on the Autism Spectrum, we have had fantastic success however use none of the recommended techniques. What I have used since his diagnosis at age 4.5yrs is “forced choices”. It’s not as bad as it sounds though! Most kids (especially ASD kids) LOVE to have control. If they think that something is their choice, they will willingly participate. So if I was cooking chicken and veges for dinner, I would say to my son “I’m going to make dinner and YOU get to pick which one you want: either chicken and veges, white meat and corn or drumsticks and potato”. Little Mr would think it over, pick one, was very chuffed he got “his way” and would eat it (or at least attempt to). Bonus is that all three options were what I was cooking anyway so I have not given in and pandered to the child, It’s all about getting them to pick one of YOUR options. It works so well that I use it for more than just food. We use it for getting dressed, behaving at the shops, cleaning up his room, etc etc. So long as you give the options and don’t let them pick out of their own imagination (which lets face it, kids will then try get away with anything LOL), they will have a sense of control, they have a sense of confidence about their choice and there are less fights. 5yrs later on our journey and my son has a huge range of foods he eats now and other than a few refusals for sensory gagging issues, it’s been very successful. (PS. It’s also works on the Dad’s sometimes hahahaha).

  5. 7

    Anne Clay said,

    What a fantastic post!! As a mother of the fussiest 4 year old in the universe, I really appreciated genuine ideas rather than the same tough love approach that is constantly shoved down my throat from family members. I look forward to trying out these methods!

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