More often than not, the main obstacle to adding new foods to a child’s diet is not related to how the food tastes, what the child’s chewing skills look like, or what flavor preferences the child has. The main obstacle is that as soon as the mere idea of a new food is presented, kids immediately go into “NO” mode.
Every so often, you may entice your child to examine the food in question or even pick it up...but that’s as far as they’re going to take it. Many times, the offending food is unceremoniously shoved across the table or chucked across the room. It’s out of sight and avoided for yet another day.
Because food refusal often happens so quickly and so consistently, it becomes a daunting task for a parent to continue offering new foods. Why waste the food? Why cause yelling and crying at meals? It’s the last thing we want to deal with at the end of the day, right?
There are some ways to help set the stage for increased acceptance and flexibility with new foods, but it won’t happen overnight. If you are trying to work on food variety without the help of a therapist, you should plan to take the approach of the tortoise...slow and steady wins the race. You and your child have a history of battling over food, and it takes some time to learn new and more positive ways of interacting.
1. It is important to have a mealtime routine in place, even if just for the limited variety your child currently has. If your child is grazing from a plate in the kitchen throughout the day or is chowing down on snacks on the couch during Paw Patrol, it is going to be more challenging to establish an effective way of presenting new foods. Start by getting your child used to a mealtime setting that will be conducive to building upon. This means sitting in a consistent location where the focus is eating and being willing to stay at the table for at least a short mealtime (using a visual timer such as this one can be really helpful in building up a mealtime duration):
Part of mealtime routine is timing. Make sure that meals are regularly scheduled 2 ½-3 hours apart in order to ensure that your child is likely to be hungry and ready to eat when you start a mealtime. Limit snacking between meals! Motivation is important to establish, before you even think to bring new foods into the mix.
2. While you are working on routine, you will also want to start examining the way that you interact with your child about food. Oftentimes, parents and kids have gotten into a habit of:
“Do you want to taste the chicken?”
“Agghhhh! No! Get it away from me!”
“Just try it for Mommy, please!”
Or maybe this:
“Look, this casserole is really yummy. Don’t you think casserole is yummy?”
“No! Casserole is the worst.”
You know that you are not going to get a positive response from your child, but you still try, because wouldn’t it be nice if they DID change their mind? However, this is not helpful. It is simply perpetuating the negative attitudes toward new foods that tend to increase over time. They are getting lots of practice with refusing food, and experiencing no successes. Break the cycle of negativity by avoiding these kind of questions altogether. Push the “reset” button on your interactions about food. Start from a clean slate. Be aware that even once your child does start tasting new foods, you may not see an immediate lovefest for the new foods. Preferences take time to develop. Let that happen through experience, and you can try to keep the atmosphere lighthearted by engaging positively with your child, just not with a focus on the food.
DON’T: “Do you feel like having some dinner now?” DO: “It’s dinner time; come join us at the table. We’re talking about our plans for the weekend.”
DON’T: “Can you just take one bite of broccoli for me?” DO: “We have spaghetti, broccoli, and garlic bread for dinner. Which ones do you want on your plate?”
DON’T: “Why do you think the banana is yucky? Talk to me about all the yucky details of the food that you haven’t even tried.”
DO: “Ok, well I like bananas. So, what did you do at school today?”
Briefly acknowledge their comments, but don’t dwell on them. Change the subject if there is no constructive discussion about food going on. If you can discourage your child from rehearsing negative thoughts and comments before they’ve even approached the food, that can help to minimize the nervous anticipation that you are probably seeing.
3. Lastly, do an inventory on all of the foods that your child eats. Be thorough. The list may be short, but include all flavor varieties to help get an idea of where you’re at. Avoid thinking about your “goal” foods that you have for your child, and start by building variety around the areas where they are already successful. You can first expand around “crunchy type” foods, or carbs, or sweet foods, or whatever it is they like, so that you get some early successes. You can start with tiny nibbles, just make sure there is a little bit of consumption going on, as this is what will help to build their confidence.
Once your child has achieved some successes with unfamiliar foods that they tried (and actually liked!), you can begin to become more adventurous with what you present. You’ll have a little buy in from your child at that point, that you aren’t actually trying to poison them. Prioritize foods that the rest of the family is eating often, so that you can offer the practice and repetition that is needed to build food preferences. As your child expands their variety, you may start to see their interest in new foods grow. If so, let them take the lead in deciding which new food comes next!