Introducing New Foods to Picky Eaters

By: Shannon Rolph, OT Reg. (Ont)

Last year, my daughter came home from school telling me all about the new things she had learned about food. She learned what taste buds are (“those little bumps on your tongue”) and that it takes 10 times trying a new food before your taste buds might learn to like them. This seems to be the general rule floating around about getting our children (or ourselves!) to enjoy a new food – this magical number 10. And for some people may be accurate. The range that’s most seen in research is 8-15 exposures. However for some of our more sensitive kids, the number of exposures required may be much higher.

If you need to expose your child to apples 20 times before they accept it – what does this actually look like?  A ‘food exposure’ does not necessarily mean that your child actually tastes the food. An ‘exposure’ really is just an opportunity for your child to learn about that particular food. What does it look like on the outside? Does it look different on the inside? What does it feel like? How does it smell when it’s raw – what about when it’s cooked? Does it make a crunchy sound? These exposures really allow our children to explore all the sensory properties of food. They allow our children to build up a mental picture of what the food might feel like or taste like so that they feel comfortable with the food. Only once our child feels comfortable will they attempt to taste it.

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How can you build up your child’s exposure to new foods? One research study found that even looking at picture books can help your child feel more familiar with a food.1  My personal favourite is finding ways to play with new foods. I love playing with food for a few reasons: most importantly, kids are designed to explore their world through play! Secondly, learning about food while playing really takes the pressure away from the experience – this allows them to interact with the food without any worry that they will be expected to put it in their mouths.

You can encourage play with food at or away from the kitchen table. Maybe you help your child create a forest of broccoli and cauliflower for their toy dinosaurs to play in, or use carrot sticks as logs for toy dump trucks or loggers. If you’re feeling really brave, you could even try purees of different coloured fruits and veggies as paint. Perhaps you’ve served something for dinner and your child has no interest in trying it. Can you encourage an interaction with the food that’s fun and playful? Who can make the loudest snap with their snap pea? Who can build the biggest tower of orange segments? Can you build a log cabin with your celery sticks?

Most importantly, even if your child reports they don’t like a food, don’t decide to never serve it to them again. Keep giving them the opportunity to learn about foods, and the opportunity to surprise you! One of these days you might find the lunch box returned with the veggies gone!

1. Owen LH, Kennedy OB, Hill C, Houston-Price C. Peas, please! Food familiarization through picture books helps parents introduce vegetables into preschoolers’ diets. APPETITE. 128:32-43

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