The Carrot! – How to encourage your child to eat new foods

A few weeks ago, we built a snowman in our back garden and wanting him to be the traditional sort of snowman… we gave him a carrot for a nose. First thing the following morning, my 3-year-old son was outside playing in the snow. Finding the carrot he excitedly asked if he could eat it! ‘Sure’ I said, jumping at the opportunity for him to eat 1 of his 5 a day so early in the morning!

As he was eating the very cold carrot that had spent the night outside, I laughed as I remembered how the night before he had refused to eat the carrot sticks that I had given him with dinner, and now 14 hours later he was happily munching the same food!

Standing there watching him, I was reminded of the importance of not giving up on a food or thinking our children will never eat it.  As parents it is easy to become frustrated when our kids won’t eat certain foods, especially when we have lovingly prepared it for them. But (unfortunately for us!) refusing to eat a food or suddenly going off it is a normal part of our children’s development.

Despite this being normal for them, it is important for us as parents to continue encouraging a good healthy variety in our children’s diet. Research has shown that what our kids eat now plays a huge role in their future health and whose who eat healthy diets as children are more likely to continue this into adulthood.

Is this one worth the fight?

Before we even start talking about how to encourage your child to eat a certain food, I think it’s important to ask… ‘Is this one worth the fight?’ Children, like us will have certain food preferences. Depending on what the food is, it may be important to keep trying to encourage it or it might not be worth the fight, at least at the moment, depending on how good your child’s overall intake is.

I’d suggest picking your battles if you have a child who won’t eat many foods. Choose foods that have a high nutritional value. For example, if you child doesn’t eat any foods high in iron (red meat, eggs, beans, chickpeas, dried fruit, seeds, nuts and spinach), choose one that you think might be most easily eaten and encourage that one. If they don’t eat many foods high in calcium like milk, yoghurt or cheese, or non-dairy alternatives, one of these would also be worth ‘fighting’ for.

Foods lower in nutritional value are generally not worth the fight. In my house these include mushrooms, lettuce and celery! My 3-year-old won’t eat lettuce but I don’t even offer or encourage him to eat it. Yes, he sees us eating it but the nutritional value is so minimal compared to the other salad foods that I would rather focus on trying to encourage him to eat his carrots, tomatoes and peppers!

Food presentation – try offering food in a different way

The way food is presented can make a huge difference to whether our children will eat it or not. For example, if your child will never eat raw tomatoes in a salad, I’d suggest to stop offering them like this… for the time being at least. You could try adding tomatoes to a sandwich, or on top of cheese and crackers, or maybe they would be better eaten cooked in a pasta sauce. It doesn’t really matter in what form they eat it, it all counts.

Many children don’t like biting into a whole fruit like apples, peaches or pears. If this is the case in your house, you could try cut it into slices, stew it or encourage them to dip the slices in something like yoghurt or peanut butter.

Children often love dipping foods. So here are a few others you could try:

  • Carrot sticks or ‘fingers’ of pita bread dipped in hummus, cream cheese or tzatziki.
  • Thin slices of toast dipped into a runny egg
  • Broccoli dipped into a cheese sauce or even mayonnaise
  • Potato wedges, chicken or fish dipped into tomato sauce.

I try limit tomato sauce in my house but will offer it with a few foods if it means more will get eaten! If you give it to your children, I would suggest setting a limit you are comfortable with as it could easily be requested with everything!

Associations made with food and the names we give food

I’m sure many of you have had the experience where your little one refuses to eat a food at home, but will happily eat it at school, grandma’s or at a party!

As frustrating as this can be, I’d encourage you to just go with it. Think on the positive side, at least they have eaten it (even if it’s just once) and hopefully it will be easier to encourage them to eat it next time. As long as it went down well the first or the last time, you could use it as a reminder… ‘How about eating some peas? Remember how well you ate them at Granny’s house’.

The names we give foods can also have a positive or negative effect on our child’s eating. When my sister was younger, she refused to eat spaghetti bolognaise, until my mom realised that it was because she had referred to it as ‘worms’. However, with my 3-year-old son, I’m sure if I were to call it worms, he’d love it!

To help encourage your child eat a food they are hesitant about… or down right refusing, I’d suggest trying positive food associations. Here are some of my favourites for young children:

  • ‘Would you like to be a monkey and show me how you eat this banana?’
    The first time I did this, I had to stop my son from eating his 3rd banana of the day!
  •  ‘Would you like some mud for breakfast?’
    This one might be better for the boys. My husband came up with it to encourage Weetabix one morning and it worked like a treat! Especially when ‘boulders’ AKA raisins were added.
  • Using their favourite character. Paw Patrol is the current favourite in our house so I could call crackers (or any other food) ‘pup treats’ or for girls maybe ‘princess or fairy treats’.
  • Or building a snowman and eating his nose!

These are just a few examples and I’d suggest tailor making some of your own depending on your child’s current interests.

Get them involved

Another idea is to get your child involved in the cooking or food preparation process. Just tonight my 3-year-old son helped me put the chopped cashew nuts in a bowl (which was a task that wasn’t actually needed but it made him happy!) and then he got to sprinkle them over the stir fry.

I agree… allowing or encouraging our children to help make food is not the easy way out and if you’re anything like me I’d often rather just put the TV on and do it myself, but the rewards do pay off. Many children love being involved and will eat better if they’ve helped, especially if they can tell Daddy or Granny they helped make it!

Here are some easy ‘jobs’ young children could do in the kitchen to help get them involved:

  • Spreading butter or margarine on toast or bread
  • Washing the vegetables or fruit
  • Mixing
  • Pouring ingredients together
  • Making vegetable parcels together and wrapping them in tin foil to cook in the oven
  • Cutting softer vegetables or salad ingredients (avocado works really well) and not stopping them if they want to ‘eat on the job’!

Copying others

Another important tip in encouraging your child to eat a food is to expose them to it often and in non-pressured situations. Try make it fun and of course show them you enjoy it too.

I’ve had consultations with parents where they complain that their child won’t eat any fruit or vegetables, only to discover that they don’t eat them either. Despite the shenanigans our kids may get up to… they do love copying those around them and we need to lead by example.  

Children especially enjoy copying other children too. This unfortunately can have positive or negative effects on their eating. Look out for the positive and use them to your advantage. When my son was 2 years old, he wouldn’t eat eggs… until he saw that his friend Max loved them. Ever since then if he gets a bit funny about eating them, I find myself saying… ‘But Max loves eggs’ and he’ll polish them off! 

Rewards

Rewarding you child for good eating or trying a new food can be a great motivator for them. What method you use for this will very much depend on how old your child is. For young children this might not be possible but the older they get the more they may ‘work’ for a reward. Ideally the reward for eating well shouldn’t be a sweet treat. Rather use non-food rewards such as:

  • Sticker charts
  • Extra time to play after the meal
  • Doing their favourite activity
  • Having an extra story read to them
  • Being able to watch their favourite TV show or play a game

This is an area where what I think professionally as a Dietitian and what I practically do with my son differs! Professionally I’d say that it’s better to avoid giving any ‘food’ rewards for good eating and to always offer a ‘second course’ like fruit or yoghurt after the meal irrespective to how well the meal was eaten. Doing this is thought to help your kids maintain a positive association with all foods by not enforcing the idea that if you eat the ‘yukky ’ tasting foods you can get something nice to eat! However, since becoming a mum this is one ‘rule’ that I have broken. My son responds really well to the… ‘If you eat 3 more mouthfuls of the fish pie and your broccoli then you can have some grapes!’ And seeing as though it works so well with him we do it.

As parents we’d love to see more results overnight, and sometimes this does happen. However, when the progress is slow it is important to celebrate any small positive step your child takes. If they currently don’t eat any vegetables, just taking 1 bite of one is a huge step forward for them. Don’t get disappointed because they haven’t eaten everything you’d like them to, but rather focus on the small positive step they have taken. As long as it’s heading in the right direction no matter how big or small it is, they deserve to be celebrated. And sometimes this alone will be reason enough for them to do it again.

I’d love to hear the creative ways you’ve got your kids to eat a previously ‘rejected’ food.

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