How can I encourage a picky eater to try new foods?

To encourage a picky eater to try new foods, make foods that kids can eat with their fingers, like veggies or fruit. Try serving them with yogurt or dressing. Kids love to dip food!
Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, MD
Emergency Medicine
First, remember the big picture: toddlers, in general, tend to be challenging eaters at times (and by that, I mean most of the time). It’s normal for a toddler to eat a food one day and refuse it the next. Also, remember that children do tend to eat when they're hungry -- and will have good days and bad -- so keep this in mind if your child isn’t eating as much as you’d like. Of course, if your child appears to be dehydrated or losing weight, you should have them evaluated. But assuming that they're gaining weight and growing appropriately, here are some tips to try:
  • Don’t push too hard. Forcing children to eat -- especially toddlers -- can turn mealtime into an extremely frustrating experience for parents and kids alike. 
  • Be careful with non-nutritious snacks and juice. Allowing kids to fill up on these will just take up room from the healthy things they should be eating. But nutritious snacks, such as a “nibble tray,” may be a good way to help them get nutrition throughout the day. Set out foods like apple slices, avocado chunks, bananas, steamed broccoli, cheese squares and Cheerios.
  • Combine a known with an unknown food. Have them dip a food they like into a dip they don’t know, or vice versa. Or top a piece of bread with a new food.
  • Cut food into fun shapes
  • Model the behavior you want. It’s important that your child see you eating the same food you’re trying to get them to eat. You’re one of their biggest influencers. Sharing food together makes it even more fun. 
  • Try and try (and try) again. It can sometimes take 12-15 exposures to a given food for a child to finally like it. 
  • Also, choose your battles. If your child only likes their broccoli a certain way, or their yogurt in one flavor, and that way is healthy and nutritious, humor them.  Remember, whatever you succeed in getting them to eat, they may refuse next week, so it’s usually not worth too much of a battle, as long as they’re getting nutritious food!
  • One of my favorite practices is “The 3 R’s” -- Repetition (offer them the same food many times, as it may take several encounters to get them to even try, let alone like it), Role Modeling (let your child see you eating and enjoying it), and Rewards (praise your child for trying new foods).  
Getting a picky eater to try new foods has a lot to do with exposure; trying new foods more often and having lots of options is helpful. In this video, psychologist Jennifer Hartstein, PsyD, shares some helpful tips for picky eaters. 
Picky eaters are really common in the toddler age group. So what I tell parents is that they decide what their kids eat, when they eat it, and what, when, and where; and then the kids get to decide how much. So you put it on the table and you say, "You need to try everything." That's important, too, but then if they don't eat, they get hungry. And I promise that kids, when they get hungry enough, will eat, and we don't need to feel like we are force-feeding anyone. And that way it doesn't become a power struggle, but eventually the kids try the things that you want them to try.
All parents have a story about when their child was a “picky eater”. Usually around the age of one a child’s appetite will naturally decrease as their growth rate slows. Toddler and young children can use meal time to force food preference.

Try these tips to encourage your picky eater to try new foods.
  • Involve your child in prepping the food
  • Be patient
  • Do not force your child to eat
  • Dine together
  • Role model healthy eating

Continue Learning about Healthy Eating For Children & Teens

Making Nutrition Fun Helps Kids Change
Making Nutrition Fun Helps Kids Change
The comic Steven Wright once said his mom made only two dishes for dinner -- take it or leave it. That’s the same menu choices offered by researchers ...
Read More
Who should be careful eating foods that are high in fatty acids?
Stacy Wiegman, PharmDStacy Wiegman, PharmD
Children and pregnant women are advised by the United States Food and Drug Administration to avoid g...
More Answers
5 Easy Tips for Quick and Healthy School Lunches
5 Easy Tips for Quick and Healthy School Lunches5 Easy Tips for Quick and Healthy School Lunches5 Easy Tips for Quick and Healthy School Lunches5 Easy Tips for Quick and Healthy School Lunches
Avoid lunch-making stress with these simple ideas.
Start Slideshow
How Can I Help My Child Choose Healthy Foods From the Cafeteria?
How Can I Help My Child Choose Healthy Foods From the Cafeteria?

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.