Expert Advice: Getting Kids to Try New Foods

Getting Kids to Try New Foods Through Repeated Exposure

Written by: Catherine Callahan, MS, CCC-SLP, CLC and expert behind @chikidsfeeding

You’re motivated and ready to start moving your family toward a healthy, well-balanced diet, but where do you start? How do you get your child to accept new fruits and vegetables when all attempts in the past have been met with a resounding “no”? For most families, continuing to offer a wide-variety of healthy fruits and vegetables can be difficult. Frustration, cost, availability, and the chaos of everyday life can make it discouraging to keep trying. But, with a little guidance and simple steps to follow, you can start this new year off on the right foot. Make it a priority to begin exposing your child to healthy fruits and vegetables.

Let’s start with what we know.

The literature tells us that there is a strong correlation between the foods children like and their experience with them (Cooke, 2007). “Perhaps the most important determinant of a child’s liking for a particular food is the extent to which it is familiar. Put simply, children like what they know and they eat what they like” (p. 294). Research stresses the importance of exposing children to a wide variety of foods at a young age. Repeated, early exposure to healthy foods predicts a better quality diet through childhood (Nicklaus S, Schwartz C., 2019).

The challenge that often arises for families is food neophobia. Food neophobia, or fear of the new, emerges around age 2, can deter children from trying new foods, and can lead to a limited diet. So, what do we do if our child has difficulty trying new foods.

Research tells us that the number of exposures to a new food needed to change a child’s preferences increases with age.

If new or unfamiliar food is scary, we need to make it familiar. “An extensive literature indicates that with experience of repeated tasting or ‘exposure’ (sometimes referred to as ‘mere exposure’), neophobia can be reduced, and dislikes transformed into likes” (Cooke, 2007, p. 295). Research tells us that the number of exposures to a new food needed to change a child’s preferences increases with age. One study found that infants only need one exposure to increase liking and consumption of a new food (Sullivan & Birch, 1994); while others demonstrated that 2 year olds required between 5 and 10 exposures (Birch & Marlin, 1982; Birch et al., 1987); 8 to 15 exposures are needed for 3 to 4 year olds (Sullivan & Birch, 1990); and up to 20 exposures for 7 to 9 and 10 to 12 year olds (Loewen & Pliner, 1999).

What does “exposure” mean and how do we do it?

We now know exposure matters. And we may need to expose our child to a new food up to 20 times before we can change their mind about it. But, how do we expose our child to a food enough times without complete frustration and discouragement?

It can and should be as simple as having the food in your house, preparing it, playing with it, cooking it, and tasting it.

First, remember that while “exposure” may sound scientific and complicated, it doesn’t have to be at all. Exposure to new food should be simple and organic. It can and should be as simple as having the food in your house, preparing it, playing with it, cooking it, and tasting it. The literature tells us that kids do best when they are reading books about the food, cooking it, touching it with their hands, and tasting it (Nicklaus S, Schwartz C., 2019). Our end goal will always be for the child to eat the food, but we should to meet him at the level he is most comfortable, and work toward that goal together. We also should avoid using any pressure or force to teach a child to eat the goal food. The pressure to eat in childhood has been found to lead to other eating challenges later in life (Ellis JM,Galloway AT, Webb RM, et al., 2016).

15 different ways to expose your child to a new food.

Focus on making these steps part of your daily routine and they won’t feel like any additional work. Remember that the exposure is what matters most. Your job is to provide opportunities for exposure; your child’s job is to learn.

What do you do if your child isn’t meeting nutrition needs

This can be a lengthy process. If your child isn’t consuming a healthy, well-rounded diet and this process feels daunting, consider introducing a nutrition supplement like Healthy Height. This pediatrician developed kids nutrition mix is uniquely formulated with the right combination of protein, amino acids, vitamins & minerals to fuel a child's growing body. Offer the supplement 1-2 times per day with meals or snacks. This will give you the peace of mind that your child is meeting his nutrition needs while learning to eat new foods.

How to get kids to try new foods

You’re not alone in this! It can take up to 20 exposures for a child to accept a new food. Keep it simple and don’t get discouraged. Work on exposing your child to the goal food daily through meal prep, sensory play, learning, or a variety of serving methods. Eventually, your child will become more familiar and willing to try the new foods you’ve introduced.

Catherine Callahan

Pediatric Feeding Specialist

Catherine is a Speech-Language Pathologist, Pediatric Feeding Specialist, Certified Lactation Counselor and mom of three. She resides in Chicago, where she works at a top 10 US Children’s Hospital and owns her own business, ChiKids Speech & Feeding, LLC. Head to her blog and follow her on Instagram, on Facebook for everyday feeding strategies and mealtime advice.

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