Introducing new foods to young children can be a testing time for parents and caregivers. Tears and tantrums are commonplace and mealtimes can be extremely challenging for the whole family.
But let’s imagine what the experience is like from the child’s perspective. Perhaps they’re fearful of unfamiliar food. Maybe they don’t like surprises. Maybe they don’t feel safe trying new food.
If your child isn’t keen on trying new tastes and textures, don’t despair. There are plenty of things you can do to encourage little ones to discover new foods – all you need is patience, a sense of humour and a commitment to stick to the plan! Remember, it is much harder beyond toddlerhood to get a child to accept new foods, so it is worth putting in the effort when they’re very young.
Here are some tried and tested tips for encouraging young children to try new foods:
Tell your children your game plan
One of the ways you can help children feel safe and comfortable tasting new foods is to make them aware of what the goal is. Use simple language and acknowledge that they may not always like tasting new foods, but that it is important that they at least try. Use simple language to communicate the game plan and what they can expect.
Emphasise ‘trying’ food as opposed to ‘eating’ it
Introduce unfamiliar tastes in small doses. If a child is faced with a plateful of unfamiliar food, they may feel distressed by the weight of expectation that they have to eat the whole lot. The goal is simply to get them to sample the new food. Celebrate when a child manages even a solitary taste, because that’s a positive step in the right direction. It’s also important to remember that food shouldn’t be used as a reward and kids should never be forced to try anything if they don’t want to. Be patient and things will happen!
Give young children lots of information about the new food, and try and put it in context of something they are already familiar with. For example, you could say something like: “This will be crunchy like the chicken you had yesterday” or “this will be soft and squishy like mashed potato”.
Be a good role model
Children take cues from adults around them and if they see you eating new things, they are more likely to follow suit. When they do try something for the first time, instead of asking whether they ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ it (which immediately categorises their response), rather discuss their experience of the new food. Ask them what it was like relative to the smell, taste, texture and appearance of other foods that they are already familiar with.
Mix it up
Make it a rule at home that you don’t serve the same food two days in a row. Even if your young child ‘only’ eats chicken nuggets, it is important that they learn the habit of eating different foods on different days.
Snacktime is a good time for new things
Snacktime is a good time for pairing new varieties of food with ones that the child is already happy to eat. For example, if they love carrot sticks dipped in hummus, introduce a new veggie like cucumber or capsicum together with the carrot. Cut up several different fruit or vegetable varieties and let them choose the ones they like.
Daycare also opens up opportunities for young children to experiment with new tastes and textures. Children are naturally curious and when they see others around them eating different things, they may be tempted to experiment. The professional staff at a quality childcare centre will know all about the nuances of how to encourage even the pickiest eater to try new things.
The most important thing to remember is not to give up. Whilst introducing new foods to children can be very challenging and often frustrating, it will benefit everyone in the long run.
Simone O’Brien owns Treasured Tots Early Education which operates three highly successful childcare centres in Perth, Western Australia.
She has been in the childcare industry for 14 years and has established Treasured Tots as the benchmark for quality childcare in Perth.
Simone qualified with a Diploma in Children’s Services and worked in childcare for a couple of years before recognising a dire need for childcare that offered families a loving, nurturing, supportive and warm ‘home away from home’. This prompted her to open her first childcare centre in Perth in 2011 at only 22 years of age.
Treasured Tots now has three childcare centres in Mandurah, Bibra Lake and Fremantle.
Simone is an active member of the Australian Child Care Alliance (ACA), a not-for-profit, member-funded organisation which advocates for the future of Australia’s children.