Getting Kids to Try New Foods Through Repeated Exposure
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.
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).
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).
Work through these steps, choosing at least one to complete each day.
- Pick a goal fruit or vegetable and add it to your shopping list. Keep that same goal food for at least two weeks to ensure enough exposure. Make sure this food is something you and other family members like to eat (or are comfortable trying). Don’t put too much pressure on choosing the perfect food. Simply choose something that goes well the meals that week, something that catches your eye, or something you’d like to see your family eating.
- Go to the library and pick up picture books that are themed around or include your goal food. Read books about the goal food during the two week period. Research found that looking at picture books about a vegetable increased a child’s liking and consumption of that goal vegetable (Owen LH, Kennedy OB, Hill C, et al., 2018).
- Head to the store and bring along your little one. Have her scoop the veggies into the produce bag, or pick the most ripe piece to add to the cart.
- After your shopping trip, have your child wash the goal food and put in into the fridge or out on the table to eat.
- During meal prep time, ask your child to participate by chopping, peeling, or blending the goal food.
- Have your child assist with cooking a meal or snack using the goal food. Recent research found that preference for goal foods increased following hands-on cooking with the goal food within a group setting (Ehrenberg S, Leone L, Sharpe B, Reardon K, Anzman-Frasca S., 2019).
- During a meal, have your child serve a small portion to each plate with clean fingers or a set of tongs.
- At the end of a meal, ask your child to assist with clean up. Have him clean his plate by picking up food with fingers to throw it into the trash. If this is easy, it may sound silly, but have your child put the food in his mouth and spit it into the garbage. If he’s having fun with this, it will create a positive memory associated with tasting the food.
- After clean up, have your child help scoop the leftovers into a clear storage container with clean hands or a spoon to keep in the fridge. Leave the container in the refrigerator next to your child’s favorite grab and go snack.
- Toward the end of the week when leftovers are getting old, make a craft with the goal food. Try creating a silly face on a plate: have your child spread yogurt or pureed vegetables to make the face, then use fruit and veggie pieces for the eyes, nose, and mouth. One study found that preschool children who engaged in sensory play with fruits and vegetables tried them more than children who engaged in sensory-play with a non-food or children who had visual exposure alone. (Coulthard H, Sealy A., 2017).
- Play a game of basketball with the goal food during snack or play time. Allow your child to pick up pieces of the goal food and throw them into a container or the garbage. Or if your child is ready, have her put them into her mouth and try to spit them into the trash. Another study similarly indicated “sensory play, with fruit and/or non-food substances, combined with exposure may be an effective strategy to increase tasting and fruit acceptance in children” (Coulthard H, Williamson I, Palfreyman Z, et al., 2018).
- Prepare your goal food in a variety of ways. For example, if the goal food is peas, offer frozen peas one day, steamed peas the next, and freeze dried another day.
- Add 1 teaspoon of the goal food to your child’s lunch box (make sure he knows he doesn’t have to finish everything in his lunch) along with his preferred foods a couple times during the week.
- Add 1 teaspoon or just a couple pieces of the goal food to your child’s plate at mealtime a few days during the week. Make sure everyone in the family is eating that same food. Encourage him to eat that food through modeling.
- If your child is ready, have him do a taste test and rate different preparations of your goal food. For example, rate raw broccoli vs. steamed broccoli vs. roasted broccoli.
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.
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.
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.
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