Beyond One Bite: How to Get a Picky Toddler to Try New Foods

Learn the tricks of the trade from a family dinner expert.

Dan Bannister

In our house, we have the "no thank-you" bite rule. Our daughter doesn't have to eat anything she doesn't like, but she does have to try everything on her plate and take a "no thank-you" bite, before determining she doesn't really want it.

Two months ago she wouldn't touch mushrooms, but after taking her mandatory "no thank-you bite" last week, she's suddenly a mushroom fan. What was once too spicy, is now "super yummy." She used to love all fruit, but recently informed us that "pineapple is not my favorite," and that afternoon ate only her strawberries.

The "no thank-you" bite is one of the strategies to help our daughter develop into an adventurous and healthy eater. But there are many meals in her future, and the older and more head-strong she gets, the more challenging mealtime likely will become.

Amanda Haas, owner of One Family, One Meal, has developed a business to help parents find and cook recipes that both children and adults will enjoy. Haas, who's also Williams-Sonoma's Director of Culinary, says it's important to remember that even if a child turns his or her nose up to a certain food once, it doesn't mean he or she will forever.

Here's what she had to say on how to get picky toddlers to open their mouths -- and minds -- to new foods.

Q: Why is it important for a toddler try new foods?
Haas: Trying new foods is simply a way to expose children to a variety of vitamins and minerals they need in a well-balanced diet. I have big opinions on forcing kids to eat foods.

Research has shown that our palates can change up to a dozen times as we develop. So if your child spits out their first taste of a green bean or a beet, don’t fret! Simply move onto something else on the plate and try it again a month or two later.

Q: If your toddler eats only chicken nuggets or macaroni and cheese, what are some good foods to start with to expand their palate?
Haas: Most parents don’t love my answer to this question.

I say that if you don’t want your child eating chicken nuggets and mac and cheese, then do not serve them to your children. Kids are smart. If you try to offer them a healthier or spiffed-up version of their favorite food, they usually push it away. I’ve always found it easier to offer very different foods. Once they realize chicken nuggets and mac and cheese are not a choice, they’ll move on.

Q: How important is it for parents to set a good example?
Haas: I think it’s the best way to lead! If parents are cooking and eating nutritious food-or that’s all that is in the house-it is much easier to follow! Will a veggie-loving dad have a veggie-loving child? Not at all a guarantee. However, if you fill your home with vegetables and serve them a lot, chances are much better that they’ll learn to love veggies over less healthful choices.

Q: No parent wants to send their child to bed hungry, but at what age can parents say "This is what we're having for dinner. Please eat it, or nothing."
Haas: This is a super personal question that each parent needs to answer differently. My husband and I even see it differently. I figure if I’ve made a delicious, nutritious meal with 2-3 things on the plate, they can choose from there.

When they pout or don’t eat it, I don’t offer them something else.  I simply leave the plate at the table so if they’re hungry later, they can come back to it. Also, the most important part of this is not to make a big deal of it when they throw a tantrum around what you made. Power struggles can happen early and often! (Easier said than done, I know!)

Q: For parents of infants, are there any tips for raising a healthy, adventurous eater?
Haas: Expose them to a lot of different kinds of produce. As they get older, let children choose as much as possible from the healthy  areas in a grocery store.

When children feel in control of their decisions, great things happen! I used to let my children pick which recipe we’d make out of one of my cookbooks.  When they choose, they’re always proud to eat it.

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