Many children have an initial negative reaction to trying new food. For some children, it is a process in which they need to feel safe before they are willing to taste a small bit. For others, being faced with new foods could mean WAR! These children will not try any kind of unfamiliar new food and may even vomit if they are forced to taste a new food.
Your child is not necessarily a “picky eater” if he does not want to try new foods. Science even suggests that nature created the child this way to help him to survive by being suspicious of and to avoid new foods until they are deemed safe to eat. (The argument “because mommy said so” is not convincing to a discerning child.)
So, how can parents navigate these rough waters? How can we work with the child and help him be more flexible about trying new foods? Are there positive messages we can convey as parents? What are the right ways to encourage a child to taste new foods without starting a war around the family table?
Based on studies, you may have to present a new food to a child at least 10-16 times before he is willing to taste it. It is crucial that parents have patience in this process. The way in which we expose a child to new foods has a huge impact on his behavior. In this article, I offer suggestions on how to introduce new foods to a child -- ways that increase your chances for success. However, you (parents and caregivers) need to be patient and persistent.
Here are 6 tips for introducing new foods to your child:
Hide & Seek Games: Sometimes, the way to introduce a child to new food is gradually. As a first attempt, you might expose your child to a new food by disguising it among familiar foods. For example, if you serve pastries such as Burekas (phyllo dough pastries filled with meat/vegetables/cheese/potatoes) you may be able to mix in vegetables that your child will not eat when served alone on his plate. You can put mushrooms or other diced vegetables in lasagna or add cottage cheese to an omelet. These are all examples of “hiding” a new food with a food the child recognizes and likes. By doing this, the child is not alerted to the fact that a new food is present since what he sees is food that is familiar to him in texture and taste.
Intermediary Food: One of the most important tools to get a child to try new foods is to use a “mediator food.” A mediator food is something that the child knows and loves. Openly combining this favorite food with a new food can lower a child's aversion to try the new food. For example, ketchup is a common mediator food for children. (We all know kids who put ketchup on everything!) You might be able to get your child to try fish instead of chicken if he is allowed to dip it in ketchup. If your child loves Bolognese sauce, you can try combining it with quinoa or buckwheat instead of pasta. You might use honey, jam or chocolate spreads (in moderation) to let him try a variety of whole grain breads. The intent here is not to promote eating unhealthy items, but to use a beloved food to reduce the initial reluctance toward new, healthy foods.
Personal Example: The willingness of a child to taste new foods decreases greatly in the absence of a role model. Touting healthy food or drink to a child while the parents make unhealthy choices is a task destined for failure. The message that we need to convey is that healthy food is important for the bodies of both children and adults. From the child’s perspective, if it's healthy food and important, everyone should be eating these foods, not just children!
Variety in preparation and serving: It is very important to vary the way you prepare and serve new foods in order to reduce a child’s reluctance to try them. There can be very large differences in taste and texture of the same food when it is fresh, cooked or baked. For instance, many children do not like fresh carrots, but might enjoy them cooked (sweeter) or added as an ingredient (softer, such as gnocchi). The same is true for a wide variety of vegetables and fruits that can be eaten fresh or cooked. Experiment! You never know what your child will like, so try to vary the preparation and serving of new foods in terms of shape, condiments/flavorings used and fresh versus cooked.
No Guarantees: When your child is tasting new foods, don’t promise that they are “very tasty.” For many foods, you’ll have to give your child time to adjust to taste and texture. If you promise that the food is delicious and it isn’t to him, the child may be disappointed and unwilling to try anything else. Also, it is important that we encourage the child to taste without any obligation to continue eating. Honor his wishes after he has tasted, but continue to offer a variety of foods and preparations.
Too Much Marketing Destroys: Frequent and impassioned talks about how important healthy food is do not always help us achieve our goal. Based on studies, children were less willing to taste and experiment with vegetables in families that had “strong public relations" about healthy foods and constantly pushed eating vegetables. In families where healthy foods were regularly incorporated into meals (salad, cut vegetables, etc.), children were much more likely to taste and include vegetables in their diet. Sometimes we spend too much time glorifying healthy foods and pressuring children to eat them. It might be better to present children with delicious, fresh foods and let them choose for themselves what they like.