If you have a picky eater, I bet there are a select few foods that they will eat easily and happily. And, I bet you RELY on those foods to keep your world turning and your family fed. So what happens when your picky eater STOPS eating a safe food all of a sudden? How on earth do you introduce new foods to your picky eater child? It’s a LOT for a parent whose feeding plate is already way too full.
In this post, I’ll give you concrete tips on foods you can try and things you can DO for your picky eater child who’s no longer tolerating one or more of their safe foods. And, I’ll share some of my favorite go-to tips for introducing new foods in a way that picky eaters won’t freak out about.
What Is A Safe Food?
A safe food is any food your picky toddler typically eats and like. Often, safe foods are general things like white bread, plain pasta, or strawberries. But some picky eater children will only eat specific brands, flavors, or types of food, like Tyson chicken nuggets or mac and cheese made from shell pasta.
If your picky eater relies on safe foods a lot right now, it might be frustrating for you. You might be like, “I cannot make another plain hot dog!!” And that’s okay! But trust that eating a lot of the same foods is okay for them. It doesn’t mean that they will never try something new, either. In fact, knowing and leaning into their safe foods can be a path TO getting them to try something new.
Knowing your child’s safe foods lets you:
- Make sure they have something to eat at each meal
- Have a visual of where they’re starting from
- Help them feel comfortable at mealtimes (which will then make them more likely to branch out later)
Tip: Write A List Of Your Child’s Safe Foods
You WILL get to the part where you actively and purposefully introduce new foods to them. But to start, I encourage you to get a really good handle on their safe foods.
In Simple Steps to Picky Wins (my picky eating course that teaches parents to reverse picky eating one win at a time), I include a fillable Picky Eater Love It List. Parents like that it provides a visual list of the foods their kids eat now, it makes it easy to track progress as they expand their safe foods, and that it’s a tool they can share with other family members!
Here’s what a few picky eater parents’ lists have looked like:
Make a Love It list for your child, too! You can get this list for free in my Picky Eater Starter Guide!
What To Do If Your Picky Eater Stops Eating Their Safe Foods
Are they tired of it, or just not that hungry?
It can be hard to tell whether your picky eater is turning their nose up at a previously safe food because they truly won’t eat it anymore OR if they weren’t very hungry and wouldn’t have eaten much of anything you served.
As a picky eater parent, you’re likely hyper-aware of their food intake. You’ve had to be! But if they’ve been eating chicken nuggets religiously and today they turned them down, it’s worth taking a moment, maybe a breath (it’s going to be okay!), and trying that food again. Because maybe they really weren’t hungry and you’ll get a happy surprise tomorrow!
If later, they still won’t eat it, you may have a picky eater who has gotten tired of a safe food. So, you’ll need to initiate phase II of your picky eater parent journey and learn how to get them to eat new foods that get worked into their rotation. (Don’t worry, I’ll help!)
How To Get Your Picky Eater To Eat New Foods
Whether it’s a brand new food, a food they’ll tolerate sometimes, or just a bigger quantity of food, these are some of my favorite tricks for how to teach a picky eater to eat more.
#1 Give Them A Choice
Food is a very sensory experience. One that can be overwhelming for picky eaters! And when you pair an overwhelming sensory experience with very little choice or control over what they get to eat…well, you can see how that would be tough for some kids.
One way to reduce the challenge of new or unfamiliar foods? Offer your picky eater a choice in what they eat. That doesn’t mean they get to choose EVERYTHING they eat. It just means letting them choose SOMETHING they eat. I like to let them choose between two options at a meal, like having a slice of bread or a dinner roll, carrots or cucumbers, spaghetti noodles or penne. The rest will still be your decision.
#2 Use The Rotation Rule
If your picky eater’s days are often filled with the exact same foods, use the rotation rule:
If you serve a meal one day, don’t repeat the exact same thing the next day.
This rule is helpful because it doesn’t require you to introduce a new food each day—it just asks you to switch between safe foods they already trust and will eat. The benefits are that they get a bit more variety in terms of both the foods they’re exposed to and the nutrition they get. (Even if you serve nuggets every other day with mac and cheese on the days in between, they’ll still be getting more nutritional variety than they would if they only had nuggets!)
You can apply the rotation rule to entire meals, but you can also use it for snacks. Like if they had Goldfish today, you could give them Veggie Straws tomorrow. And if they ate strawberries today, you could give them applesauce tomorrow.
Side Note: Don’t Stress Over Serving The Same Thing Twice!
With the rotation rule, I make an exception for leftovers. Sometimes you just gotta serve what’s left in the fridge and that’s okay! The same thing goes if they are really limited on foods they like and you don’t have enough safe foods to have something different from the day before.
#3 Make Small Changes
Change is really hard for picky eaters, so starting small is important. I recommend changing something about the food your picky eater is presented every time you feed them. Even if it’s just the appearance of the food or the plate!
Here are some examples of small changes:
- If they like bananas, change the way you present them. Serve them whole in the peel, whole and fully peeled, sliced into circles, sliced into half moons, or broken in half.
- If you can’t change the food, change the container! Use a bowl instead of the same plate, put their food in little silicone muffin liners, or get a plate with their favorite character. (We love this Bluey plate!)
- Change the location where they eat. Let them choose which chair they sit in, or put out a blanket and do an indoor picnic!
#4 Try Food Chaining
Food chaining is a process that gradually moves picky eaters toward new foods without overwhelming them. You start with a food they already love, then serve something extremely similar to it in taste, texture, temperature, or appearance. If (and only if!) they accept that extremely similar new food, it counts as a “link” in the food chain and you can continue on. From there, you pick a food that’s still very similar to the original, but a little more different than the first food you served, and continue that process until they’re eating something totally new. If they do not accept that new food, you’ll continue to gently expose them to it until they do.
Food chaining is great for all kids, but a lot of examples you’ll find on the internet are too drastic for most picky eaters. They suggest things like, “If they like french fries, give them mashed potatoes!” But any picky eater parent will tell you that there’s NO way their child would make a jump that big! I’m the mom to a previously very picky eater, and now (years later!), I can tell him that the inside of french fries is mashed potatoes so it’s basically the same thing. And he’ll accept my logic. But hear me when I say THIS TOOK YEARS.
In the picky eater version of food chaining, we have to take smaller steps. We would go from their favorite fast food french fry to a very similar-looking frozen fry made at home. Then, to a slightly different sized or shaped french fry. Then, ONLY once they’d accepted a variety of storebought, restaurant, or fast food french fries, I might attempt a homemade, baked french fry. After success with the homemade fries, I’d try homemade in a different shape.
It can be as basic as a different variety of apple, and then a different color.
This can be a slooooow process, but it does work. Over time, you will see your picky eater become more flexible, without having to force them to try something they’re uncomfortable with. And without them melting down at the table.
And in case you’re like, “This sounds great, but my kid is tired of their safe food. So where do I start to get it back?!” Use food chaining to introduce a new food that’s incredibly similar to the one they got tired of. Chances are, they’ll still tolerate it, and they might not be sick of it!
I Teach You How In Simple Steps to Picky Wins!
Simple Steps to Picky Wins is my online course for parents of picky eaters. In it, I teach you how to reverse picky eating one bite, one meal, and one win at a time. The steps are doable for both super busy parents and extremely cautious eaters, so it’s easy to implement. And instead of adding stress, pressure, and misery to mealtimes, it takes it away.
What To Do If They’ve Dropped A Safe Food
If your picky eater is no longer tolerating a food they previously loved, try these tips:
#1 Don’t Give Up
Don’t give up on safe foods the moment your picky eater refuses them. Remember, they could just be minorly tired of it instead of entirely done with it. Give them a break from that food, or try using the food-chaining approach I shared above to introduce something really similar. They might come back around!
When I was in graduate school, I didn’t have the energy to cook most nights! So usually, I would usually cook a big meal on Sunday and try to have leftovers for a few days. I distinctly remember one week I made pork tenderloin. It was really good at first but by day three, I could not bring myself to eat a single bite. I know it’s not exactly the same for our picky eaters, but I say this to remind you that if it can happen to us as non-picky adults, it can definitely happen to our little ones, too.
#2 Play It Cool
If your picky eater refuses something you were SURE they’d eat, try to play it cool. As hard as this is, it’s best to not make a big deal about it…at least on the outside or in front of your child. (But internal meltdowns and ranting to your partner after bedtime are strongly encouraged for their healing powers. 😂)
We don’t want to add any pressure to the situation because pressure can actually worsen picky eating or set our kids’ progress back a bit. I know you want them to eat at meals and get enough nutrition, but remember that you can’t read their mind to know if they’ve reached a new level of picky or they’re just not hungry. And you really can’t control what they put in their mouths anyway. (Picky eaters WILL outlast you!)
So if you’ve offered one or two safe foods and they still don’t want to eat, it’s okay to let it go and allow them not to eat for that one meal. Just keep an eye on how often they go without eating so that if it starts to happen often, you can talk to your pediatrician about it.
#3 Try Not To Panic
Sometimes picky eaters do drop safe foods for good. They might come back around to those foods in a few weeks or months. Or, they might not. I know that’s nerve-wracking, especially if they weren’t eating much to begin with, but I want you to know it’s pretty common.
That said, if your child is dropping safe foods, they never seem to come back around to them, and they have a very limited diet, I’d consider an evaluation with a feeding therapist.
Should I Force My Picky Eater To Eat?
Short answer: no. Despite the outdated (but widely circulated) advice telling you to send them to bed hungry, force them to take a few bites, or that “when they’re hungry enough, they’ll eat!” you do not have to force your picky eater to eat. I hope that comes as a HUGE relief because I know from experience that forcing them to eat through misery and tears is never our best parenting moment.
Your responsibility: Decide what, where, and when your family eats. (Example: Dinner will be ready at 5 pm, we’re having lasagna and salad, and we’re eating at the dinner table.)
Your child’s responsibility: Decide whether and how much to eat. (Example: Takes eight bites of lasagna and picks a single cucumber out of their salad.)
When parents start doing kids’ jobs, like telling them if or how much to eat, things get messy (figuratively speaking). When kids start doing parent jobs, like deciding they MUST have a popsicle and they WILL eat it on the WHITE couch right NOW, things also get messy (this time figuratively and literally).
The Division of Responsibility applies to ALL kids, but it’s especially important for picky eaters. You are going to want to build trust with your picky kiddo. As you do that, they will slowly feel more confident and welcome new foods.
I know force, bribes, and punishment can feel like a shortcut to getting them to eat new foods in the moment. But in the long run, they tend to backfire. If you’ve forced or bribed them before though, please don’t be hard on yourself! It’s okay. You can always rebuild and start fresh.
Foods for Picky Eater Toddlers & Kids
Wondering what else you can feed your picky eater? Here are some ideas:
Healthy Breakfast Ideas for Picky Eaters
Cold Fortified Cereal
Look for cereals fortified with iron, zinc, B vitamins, and a few other vitamins. Some good options include
- Original Cheerios (4g fiber and only 2g added sugar)
- Kix (3g fiber, 4g added sugar)
- Wheat Chex (8g fiber, 6g added sugar)
Waffles or Pancakes With Extra Nutrition
- Kashi 7 grain Waffles
- Kodiak Cakes Power Waffles or Pancake Mix
- Simple Mills Almond Flour Pancake Mix
- Arrowhead Mills Organic Buckwheat Pancake & Waffle Mix
- Blender Oatmeal Banana Pancakes
Picky Eater Breakfast Tips
- Serve cereal or waffles with 2% or whole cow’s milk, soy milk, or pea milk
- Always add fruit on the side. If they are not big on fresh fruit, you can do a puree like applesauce, frozen fruit (frozen blueberries are popular!), or freeze-dried fruit, which is nice and crunchy.
Healthy Lunch & Dinner Ideas for Picky Eaters
Add some extra nutrition to this common safe food by
- Serving whole wheat buns for extra fiber
- Adding ¼ cup milled flaxseed to ground beef or turkey
- Choosing meat that’s no more than about 90% lean because it will taste better to your picky one.
- Add cheese too, if they like it!
For sides, regular potato fries or sweet potato fries are totally fine to serve. If you can make your own baked fries and keep the skins on, there will be a little extra nutrition added there. Fresh fruit is easy to serve with burgers, too!
Some pasta options that pack-in extra nutrition:
- Whole wheat pasta
- Chickpea- or lentil-based pasta like Banza
- Healthy pumpkin pasta
- Picky eater-friendly creamy pasta sauce
Another pasta tip: Mash VERY small pieces of tender ground beef or sausage into tomato sauce. Meat that is smaller, less chunky, and easier to chew often gets accepted easier.
Want more like this? Read my Healthy Meal Plan for Picky Eaters blog post.
Stay Strong, Picky Parents!
I know this is a really tough season, but it is a season. And it’s one I can help you through! Check out my Picky Eating Resources Hub for more help and tips. (Both paid and free!)