Virtually every parent who reaches out to me for support asks the same question: “How do I get my child to try a new food without a battle?”.  It’s a great question! To us, it’s just a carrot. To your child it’s a new, scary, gross {insert other unpleasant words here} food. But here’s something parents might forget. There are factors that come into play that make children more likely to try a new food. One of those factors is the time of day we offer new food.  Depending on the time, your child could be hungry (or not hungry), distracted (or not distracted), tired (or not tired), and so on.  While every child is different, and their best mealtimes can vary, there is a theme I’ve noticed in my 8 years of working with families and picky eaters. It’s this… There are generally 5 best times to feed picky eaters or to offer any child new foods – times when they will be more keen, more energetic, less distracted, and so on.  Let’s dive in shall we?

The 5 best times to feed picky eaters (or any child) new foods: 

 

1) Offer Your Picky Eater New Foods After School

best time to feed picky eaters

When you pick up your child at school (or summer camp) have you ever noticed that they are hungry and/or irritable. They have a good reason to be!

Did you know that playing and running aren’t the only things that use up your child’s energy?  Studying, reading and doing school work require your brain as well (which uses glucose to perform) and thus uses up energy.  So even if your child is sitting all day (mine were in virtual school this year so lots of sitting indeed!), they are depleting their energy stores and need food to fuel their brains and bodies.  Then add to that, when kids are at school they don’t get enough time to eat their lunch or snacks.  And now that the summer is here (yay!), you might have them in summer camps where children are much more active.  Whether they are playing sports or doing crafts, their energy is being depleted.  Thus after a long day at school (or summer camp), it’s a good time to refuel your child.  They are hungry – they are away from home – and more likely to sample a non-favourite food.  So on your walk or drive home, have a post-school snack ready to offer.

After school snack ideas:

 

2) Offer Your Picky Eater New Foods At the Park or On-The-Go 

best time to feed picky eaters

What happens when you’re at home and you offer something new at snack or meal time? Does your child whimper and run for the cupboard/fridge to grab an alternative?  Or maybe you head that direction to get them a plan B.  It’s so much easier to give up on the exposure at home where the options are endless. There’s usually something easier they know they can eat nearby – maybe even on the counter.  It’s those options that hold you and your child back from making progress at mealtimes. Why would they want to try a carrot when they know they can have a cracker?  Why would they try your green muffins when they know there are chocolate chip muffins too?

We had that problem too.  My youngest loved (and still does) bananas which were usually in our fruit bowl on the kitchen counter.  So no matter what I served, as long as those bananas were within arms reach, there was no exploration happening.

Now let’s pretend you offered that new carrot or Sneaky Spinach Muffin when you were OUT of the house.  Maybe at the park.  The kids are running around, burning off some energy, and building up an appetite.  Then they want a snack.  So you offer the muffin.  Sure they might cry for something else.  But there’s no kitchen cupboard stocked with their fave snacks nearby.  There’s no bowl of fruit with bananas to distract them.  All you have is that muffin.  So if they are truly hungry (and there are no underlying issues with food) they are much more likely to go for it.

NOTE: For our more selective eaters, you can also have another preferred food on hand.  Ideally it’s a food that they eat sometimes (not all the time) to help build their comfort with non-favourite foods as well.

That is why, the next time you hit the park, I want you to bring a more challenging snack with you.  Not the same ol’ favourite granola bar.  Keep these kid-friendly snack ideas on hand!

 

3) Offer Your Picky Eater New Foods At Breakfast

best time to feed picky eaters

The term breakfast means “breaking the fast”.  When you child wakes up it’s likely been 10 or more hours since they ate a meal or snack, so they are likely waking up hungry.  Having an appetite is a key factor to seeing your child have a willingness to try something.  And breakfast tends to be a better meal for children (not all, but many kids).  Yet I see families gravitating to the same foods over and over – be it cereal, toast, yogurt and other breakfast faves.  And if you haven’t noticed, those breakfast foods tend to be quite carb heavy.  And depending on the ingredients/brand, also nutrient-lacking.  So tomorrow morning, instead of going into robotic mode and grabbing that box of cereal (again) consider getting out of the breakfast rut.  Let’s spice things up!

Let’s use mornings (especially on the weekends) as an opportunity to put new foods in front of your child.  You can offer something else they like (ideally a fruit or something light), so they have something to comfortably eat, even if they don’t want the refreshed breakfast option.  You may get some push back, especially if your kids have gotten used to the same breakfast options for months.  But like anything, when we are trying to create a new habit it can be sticky at first.  Push through and create a new expectation for your kids.  And that is that breakfast time is a fun time to explore new foods.

Need some breakfast inspiration?  Click here for 6 kid-friendly breakfast ideas.  Each breakfast recipe has 5 ingredients or less so they won’t take a lot of time to prepare.

4) Offer Your Picky Eater New Foods For A Bedtime Snack

best time to feed picky eaters

They’ve already eaten dinner (or maybe they haven’t).  In either case, your child has already had an opportunity to eat something.  So that bedtime snack is more of a strategy to give parents “peace of mind” that their child won’t go to bed hungry.  That explains why 95% of the time, bedtime snacks are the absolute easiest foods for your child.  It’s their favourite peanut butter and banana, or yogurt, or goldfish, and the list goes on.  But I challenge you to think differently about bedtime snacks.  Because it too is an optimal time to serve your child something more challenging, or something new.  Two reasons for this:

(1) Your child just had a chance to eat at dinner so there’s really no need to eat again.  If they didn’t eat dinner than bedtime snack is a GREAT time to feed your picky eater and offer something they don’t love yet.  If they are truly hungry, they have that food as an option.

(2)  Offering a fave bedtime snack after dinner kiboshes any motivation to try something new at dinner.  Because they know something better and easier is coming to their plate shortly afterwards.  Why would your child want to try something new in this case right?

So go ahead and swap out that peanut butter sandwich with veggies and dip, a fruit salad, or a new type of yogurt they haven’t had before.

5) Offer Your Picky Eater New Foods During Meal Prep

best time to feed picky eaters

This one is probably the most obvious.  Most kids associate the kitchen table with eating (i.e. when I sit here with or without my family it it eating time).  When they are at the kitchen counter however, eating is not expected.  That’s what makes meal prep time an ideal time to offer your picky eater new foods – not to eat of course, but to explore, prep, learn about.  So when you are preparing dinner or lunch, or other meal/snack, bring your child to the counter to help or observe.  Not only will they take pride in the salad they’ve helped toss, or the soup they’ve helped to stir.  They are getting exposure to food at a time when appetite is building (coming up on the next meal) but also the sensory exposure to foods can fuel that appetite even more (just like when you walk into a restaurant and those salivary glands start going).

These are the 5 best times to feed picky eaters – and offer kids foods they don’t like…yet.

But wait!  What if they don’t eat the new food you offer?

The timing of meals/snacks is something to consider if you have a picky eater on your hands, or a child who’s becoming a little too particular about their fave foods.  Now what do you do if your child doesn’t sample or eat the new food you’ve just offered at snack time?  Well, that’s definitely what to expect at first.  They are used to getting what they want most of the time, so you can expect some push back.  But if your goal is to raise an adventurous eater, please don’t let their response push you back into old habits of serving the same nibbles again. Instead, focus on the fact that they had a pleasant exposure (i.e. no pressure) and use it as an opportunity to get your child exploring that rejected food.

Not sure how to encourage food exploration in a fun, no-pressure way?  Do you find serving new foods and dealing with the rejection exhausting?  Then I highly recommend using a food exploration tool like The Curious Cookie Mat that transforms your child into a food explorer, and puts the control in their hands (so you don’t have to overthink what to say/do to get them interacting with the newly offered food).  The Curious Cookie Mat is a reusable, easy-to-clean, placemat that makes exploring new foods easier for kids.  Because of this mat, children have tried everything from oranges, latkes, asparagus, kiwi, broccoli, black beans, hummus, chicken, lumpa, blackberries, cheese, and the list goes on.

Curious Cookie placemat

Why are kids (even the pickiest eaters) trying so many more new foods with this food exploration mat?

There are many reasons, but to summarize:

  • The mat takes your child on a fun journey through the sensory towns.
  • At each town they are learning to like how the food looks, feels, smells, sounds and yes, even tastes.
  • The fun visuals  on the mat also makes it easy for young kids to follow along, even if they can’t read yet.
  • Step-by-step your child will learn to like the characteristics of new foods so they they are willing to try it faster.

You can use this mat at any of the best times to feed picky eaters listed above in the blog post, or simply at meals (i.e. dinner).

Click here to learn more about the Curious Cookie Mat – and grab one for your soon-to-be adventurous eater!

Sensory food activities for kids