10 ways to help a picky eater eat new foods, especially fruit and vegetables
Judith is an internationally certified nutritional therapist and AOTA accredited picky eating advisor. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
Christmas and holidays are the time for us all to relax, and not running to routines often feels like a break in itself. But then reality returns, and it is time to re-establish routines.
There are some tried and tested ways to approach food to support a child to eat competently and well, and to make feeding an easy and pleasurable experience for us. One of the simplest of these is to create good habits and routines around eating. This also supports eating more variety and being able to tackle some of the more challenging foods like fruit and vegetables.
Having defined parameters works really well for young children. Knowing what is going to happen and when, with consequences for not operating within the boundaries is comforting. It is also a key factor in supporting a picky eater to eat well, especially a super selective one. This can seem counter intuitive but is something I have seen work time and time again.
Now our children are returning to kindy and school it’s a great time to check we have some simple things in place that can make a big difference. Creating an environment conducive to eating is something we can all work towards.
Once this is in place, we can look at strategies specific to supporting them to eat more fruit and vegetables.
10 ways we can help our picky eater
1. Schedules. Creating specific times for eating is a great way to support our fussy eater, this is particularly important the more selective they are. Establishing eating windows through the day rather than allowing our child to graze works on a few levels:
a) Everyone knows when food is coming.
b) Our child is likely to be hungry coming into a snack or meal.
c) Prepared food tends to be more nutritious than pre-packaged snacks.
2. Family. Eating as a family supports eating well. A family meal is one adult and one child so totally do-able! If we eat at the same time, even if it is just a few bits and pieces for us, we are modelling and showing our child how to eat pleasurably. We are also sharing which means we are less likely to be staring.
3. Choices. Giving our child some options – but not too many – is a positive way to get them involved in meals. “Would you like carrots or peas or both?” is a great style of question. Options can be introduced in other fun ways too. “Would you like to eat inside or on the picnic rug in the garden?”
4. Control. Giving over some autonomy is positive. Allowing our child to choose what goes onto their own plate, for example. This would be from a selection we, as the parent, have offered so it is not ‘eat whatever’, but they get to be in charge of their own food.
5. Confidence. Creating an atmosphere where we are confident that our child is able to eat a variety of foods well. Showing them with words and actions that we believe that they are capable of eating new foods, maybe not today but long term. Giving them the support of our belief as we would with reading or swimming by always using affirmative language and actions.
Enabling our child to eat a wide range of foods, especially fruit and vegetables:
Let’s now look at some strategies specific to supporting our child to eat more of the green stuff. The same principles work, of course, whatever the food.
6. Comfort. The most important ingredient for increasing the number of fruit and vegetables accepted and eaten is the frequency with which we serve them. If our child sees a vegetable three to four times every week, they are far more likely to eat it than if it rarely appears. We do not willingly eat something that is outside of our comfort zone, and it takes time to build this. The more we interact with a food, the more likely we are to eat it too.
If you are thinking, well I’ve served them carrots for months and they are not even remotely interested in eating them, think reading. How long do we read to our child before they even read a word back to us? If we do have a super selective eater, there may also be some additional steps to support them to progress. But serving the foods repeatedly is still valuable.
7. Opportunity. We build a comfort level and then we give our child multiple chances to eat a food. Having vegetables available throughout the day, for example, rather than just at dinner gives additional options for take-up. Serving the vegetables first when everyone is most hungry can help. It is also super supportive to normalise vegetable uptake in the way we talk, serve, and eat.
8. Change up the food. If we would like more of a certain food eaten, then giving it a make-over can increase acceptance:
a) Dips – using a favourite dip to encourage eating a new or less favoured food eg. dipping carrots in honey/hummus/yoghurt/ketchup. Scaffolding with a dip to get something accepted initially is a great strategy.
b) Pairings – matching an accepted food with a less favoured food. It is often better not to go favourite with a non-favoured though. For example, chips v peas, chips win every time. But perhaps using cheese on top of a not so readily eaten food like beans can help. We can also use additions to make other foods taste better. For example, cheese on broccoli, honey on roasted carrots or butter on peas.
c) Skewers/cocktail sticks/muffin tins – using a different method of delivery can boost interest. The advantage of loading up, for example, a skewer also helps to increase interaction. Even pulling something off the skewer is encouraging touching and possibly smelling and some flavour trace.
This interaction is the next step after comfort around a food has been built.
d) ‘Sandwiches’ – building, for example, a vegetable sandwich using two thin slices of carrot and a wedge of cheese or slices of apple with peanut butter in between. If licking the favoured food from the less accepted one is all we achieve then we are still encouraging that ‘getting to know’ a new food.
e) Popsicles/bark/ice cream – using fruit and veg to create mini popsicles, frozen bananas for ‘ice cream’ or freezing yoghurt to make bark. There are so many creative ways to make fruit and vegetables seem treaty.
f) Frying/grilling/roasting – often a new method of cooking turns a food into a winner. Roasted kumara wedges, kale chips and BBQ corn all spring to mind!
g) Purees/smoothies/soups – less accepted foods in liquid form are often easier to manage.
h) Incorporating – adding less favoured foods in small amounts to accepted foods is often a win. Carrot cake, spinach in fritters or chicken mince in potato cakes, for example.
9. Behind the scenes. Involving our child in trips to the market, in growing some food – even just cress on the windowsill – prepping snacks, cooking, and serving all help to build a comfort level and an interest in food.
10. Fun with food. Being allowed to play with food supports building a comfort level with it. Interacting with food away from the table can also help with sensory sensitivities. For example, using uncooked rice or beans in play or manipulating dough, pastry or even yoghurt.
There are lots of fun experiments we can do with our children too. Dough rising, apples floating, freezing things and making butter from cream are all simple science exercises that are great fun.
The key take-aways for me would always be:
– Make food fun, relaxed and pleasurable
– Have confidence that our child is able to eat more widely and act accordingly
– Never, never give in, our positivity and determination will pay off
You’ve got this! For more support please feel free to contact me directly – Judith@theconfidenteater.com
Judith is mum to two boys and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. My dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
I delight in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master. I graduated from Cambridge University and have internationally certified qualifications in picky eating. I am also schooled in nutrition, parent education and am a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline. I am currently doing post graduate studies in Psychology as I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and spearhead research in this area.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/