4 Strategies for Encouraging Picky Eaters to Try New Foods

Do you have a picky eater at home? Picky eating, also known as selective eating, is very common in younger kids. In fact, up to a quarter of two year olds could be considered picky eaters. 

What is Considered Picky Eating?

Let’s start with what is picky eating or selective eating. This is when a child’s food consumption is characterized by a limited range of preferred foods and reluctance or refusal to try new foods. And while picky eating is most common in toddlers, it can persist into the rest of childhood and into adulthood. It can quickly become a problem because it impacts a child’s nutritional intake and can make family mealtimes difficult. 

What Causes Picky Eating?

As mentioned, picky eating is very common in toddlers. This is because at that age in particular, kids are fearful of new things, including food. Also toddlers are still learning to eat, so certain textures or consistencies may make feeding difficult at times. Another contributing factor is their taste buds are changing and maturing. They are very sensitive to new things, so need to be exposed to foods over and over again. And lastly, at this age toddlers are combining into their own and craving more control and autonomy, so sometimes, if being forced or pressured to eat, this can cause them to want to push back and avoid what they are being asked to do.

So if you have a child that falls into the picky or selective eater category and you want to work on increasing the variety of foods they eat, keep reading for strategies to slowly increase variety for them.

4 Strategies to Increase Variety for Picky Eaters

Structure and Schedule

Structure and schedules are what you should start with if there is little structure to your child’s day. Structure and schedules provide a supportive framework for picky eaters, fostering a sense of security and stability that can encourage greater food exploration and variety over time. Here’s how:

  • Predictability: Picky eaters often feel more comfortable when they know what to expect. So establishing regular meal and snack times creates a predictable routine, reducing anxiety around mealtimes.
  • Familiarity: Consistent meal schedules help familiarize picky eaters with the idea of eating at specific times, making them more receptive to trying new foods within that framework.
  • Positive Associations: By associating mealtimes with regularity and predictability, picky eaters may develop more positive attitudes toward food and eating, gradually becoming more open to trying new foods and expanding their food preferences.


What this involves, is serving meals and snacks at roughly the same time everyday. Instead of asking your child “are you hungry?” and “what do you want to eat?”, you already have a plan and are typically preparing something before they ask. This also means not allowing your child to snack freely throughout the day. Because if they are snacking freely, they often do not want to sit and eat when meals and snacks are presented. I know this is a hard one, but it makes such a big difference for introducing new foods when we help to get them used to being hungry and full at regular times.

Gradual Exposure and Consistency

You want to regularly expose your child to new foods and previously refused foods, and to be consistent with this practice. This helps for several reasons:

  • Reduces Anxiety: Since picky eaters often experience anxiety or fear around trying new foods, gradual exposure allows them to become accustomed to unfamiliar foods in a non-threatening way, reducing their anxiety levels.
  • Builds Familiarity: Consistency in offering new foods creates opportunities for picky eaters to become more familiar with them. The more they encounter a particular food, the more comfortable and accepting they may become of it.
  • Sets a Expectation: Incorporating new foods into regular meal and snack times establishes a routine that picky eaters can rely on and come to expect. This routine reinforces the idea that trying new foods is a normal part of eating, and makes it feel less daunting.

So how should you start if you haven’t been offering new foods? Try presenting new foods on their plate or served family style everyday. But only offer small amounts of the new or previously not accepted food. Placing a small amount of food alongside foods they like minimizes pressure and allows them to explore the food at their own pace. And some more things to keep in mind: Be patient, stay consistent and stay positive. This is usually a process and your child will likely have to be exposed to a food dozens of times before they like it or even put it in their mouth. But consistently offering the food and keeping things light and positive is tremendously helpful.

Variation: Explore Foods in Different Forms

Encouraging picky eaters to try the same food prepared in various ways can be an effective strategy for expanding their palate. Here’s why I like this strategy:

  • Novelty Appeal: Presenting familiar foods in new and different ways adds an element of excitement and novelty to mealtimes, making them more appealing to picky eaters.
  • Texture and Flavor Exploration: Different cooking methods and preparations can alter the texture, flavor, and appearance of foods, which may make them more palatable to a picky eater.
  • Increased Acceptance: Offering foods in multiple forms increases the likelihood that picky eaters will find a version they enjoy. It allows them to explore different tastes and textures. And while exposure of a food in the same form over and over does increase acceptance and familiarity on it’s own, mixing it up may expedite the process.
  • Empowerment: You may find your child picks a form they like best, as opposed to saying they don’t like the food at all. Giving them a say in how their food is prepared can empower them and make them more invested in trying new foods. 

So to do this, be thoughtful about mixing up how you prepare and serve different foods. Chicken for example can be served as chicken thighs, breasts, wings, in a soup or stew, ground into a sauce or made into meatballs, as chicken nuggets or chicken tenders, etc. Vegetables can be roasted, steamed, boiled, grilled, air-fryed, or served raw. You get the idea. This can even include making foods into different shapes.  You can also be super intentional and decide over the course of  a week, you will offer new or not previously accepted food a different way everyday.

Make Meals Fun and Enjoyable

There are so many other things your child likely wants to do instead of eat, so another way to increase variety is to make eating and food enticing. We can do that with the food itself, but I also think the environment goes a long way. Making meals fun and enjoyable plays a major role on if and what your child eats. Here’s how it may impact them:

  • Creates Positive Associations: Creating a pleasant and enjoyable mealtime atmosphere helps associate food with positive experiences. This can be through family bonding, which helps to create a positive social atmosphere. This can counteract any negative associations picky eaters may have with certain foods or mealtimes, making them more willing to try new things.
  • Reduces Pressure: By focusing on enjoyment rather than solely on eating, mealtimes become less stressful for picky eaters. This can alleviate pressure and resistance, making them more receptive to trying new foods without feeling forced or coerced.
  • Exploration and Creativity: Creating a fun and interactive meal environment encourages picky eaters to explore new foods in a playful way. Whether it's arranging food into fun shapes, trying new recipes, or hosting themed dinner nights, fostering creativity at mealtimes can spark curiosity and excitement about food.

How can you make mealtimes fun and enjoyable? First is to focus on keeping mealtimes relaxed and positive, removing pressure about eating to make it so your child enjoys being at the table. Then get creative with fun food presentations, themed meals, or creative recipes that appeal to the picky eater's interests.  You can utilize colorful plates and utensils, or even interactive plates, like the Dinner Winner plate or the Constructive Eating Plate. You can also interact with your kids while listening to music or talking about their day. And if you need some inspiration, I love the kids' conversation starters from Table Topics. The goal of all of this is to take the pressure off eating and make mealtimes fun, so that your child starts to get more excited and curious about food.

Dealing with a picky eater can be frustrating, but it's important to remember that it's a common phase for many children. By understanding the underlying reasons behind picky eating and implementing strategies like structure and schedules, gradual exposure, variation, and making meals enjoyable, parents can create a positive and supportive mealtime environment that encourages their child to explore new foods and develop healthy eating habits.

Remember, progress may be slow and patience is key. Each child is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. Stay consistent, stay positive, and celebrate small victories along the way. With time and persistence, picky eating can become a thing of the past, and mealtimes can become enjoyable opportunities for family bonding and culinary exploration.

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