Can reward charts like a picky eater chart help your child try new foods?

A young girl sat opposite her mum and both laughing together

One of the most tricky parts of being a parent is getting your children to try new food.

Some children are adventurous but these are the exception rather than the rule, for most children they need a decent chunk of time to become familiar with foods before they’ll be tempted to try them.

However, what you need to know is that there is a right way and a wrong way to encourage children to try new foods and if you get it wrong, it can really slow things down for your child. In essence it can make picky eating get worse or last longer.

In this blog I’m going to talk about the best way to help your child try new food and also explain why reward charts do more harm than good.

Why do children struggle to try new foods?

Most children will go through a picky phase somewhere between the ages of 2 and 6. It’s normal, it’s actually part of their brain development.

They’ll refuse new foods, develop favourites that they’ll want to eat over and over, they even become fearful of foods that look different or are something they haven’t seen before.

Some children sail through it and others get stuck there for quite some time, but in the main, they remain healthy and well, continue to grow and thrive.

Other children have difficulty eating because they’ve not learned a particular skill for eating because they’ve missed the developmental window during weaning, some have sensory processing issues which makes eating unpleasant so prevents them from trying new food.  

There are many reasons why children refuse to eat and sometimes it can be difficult to fully understand why. You may benefit from organising a feeding assessment for them if you can’t pinpoint the cause.

What tips do you have to help a child try new foods?

The cause of your child’s picky eating will determine what you need to do in order to help them try new foods. 

However there are a number of strategies that apply to all children that you can try at home.

The most common approach that most parents have tried is a reward chart so I’ll address this one first:

A young girl angrily pushing away a plate of uneaten pasta

Reward charts 

If you ask most parents or professionals how to get a toddler to change their behaviour, they’ll suggest a reward chart.  It’s a method that has been around for years and years because we know children learn by positive reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement is when they get something positive (i.e. a sticker on their chart) for a behaviour. This leads to more of that behaviour, because they want more stickers.

So for example, if you want your child to tidy up their toys, you can reward them with a sticker, which leads to them tidying up more often so they can get more stickers.

However when it comes to eating, it doesn’t work that way.

Eating is a biological process, it is not a ‘behaviour’. It’s actually driven by appetite regulation which, believe it or not, children are very good at if we leave them to it. They’ll choose to eat the parts of the meal or snack that they need and stop when they’re full.

When you reward a child for eating, you are overriding that natural biological process. You’re actually asking your child to ignore what their body is saying, in order to get a sticker on their chart.

When you reward your child for trying a new food, they’ll grow up to ONLY try new food when there’s a reward on offer.  

You’re not actually increasing their desire to try new foods.

Furthermore you have just added a level of pressure, a performance of sorts around their eating, and we know that pressure results in unhappy mealtimes, drama at the table and an allround unhappy experience for everyone.

My advice – throw your rewards chart for eating in the bin!

Ok, so that’s what not to do, so what can you do to help your child try new food?

Choose playtime not mealtimes 

Believe it or not, dinner is not the most successful way to introduce something new!  

Tensions are likely already running high at meal times, especially if you have been encouraging your child to eat in the past.

The best way to introduce new food is during a play activity. Play is a low pressure way of increasing food exposure to your child, because there’s no expectation to eat. 

Food play activities can include:

  • Dump and fill games with dried pasta shapes, rice or lentils.
  • Potato printing or beetroot tattoos
  • Bathing and washing root vegetables
  • Stamping melon, cucumber, ham, cheese or bread with cookie cutters to make stickers
  • Threading penne or macaroni onto string to make a necklace or bracelet.

Choose activities that are suited to your child’s developmental stage so that they are likely to be successful during their play.

Older kids will like to be food explorers or scientists experimenting with different gadgets or combinations. Younger children are more likely to enjoy building towers, taking their favourite cartoon character on an adventure across the mashed potato swamp…you get my drift? 

Unlike mealtimes, during play, the environment is usually calm and relaxed. Make sure that everyone (including you!) have had enough rest and importantly that you have the time to sit and focus on the activity.

A plate of cooked broccoli florets and carrots

What if my child doesn’t want to play with food?

That’s okay!  Some children have a real fear of food and so you may need to take a gentler approach.

Food shopping with a mini shopping trolley can start the process of them being familiar with new foods.

There are some amazing children’s books to help picky eaters understand more about food

Or you could try food bingo, here’s a link to my shop where you can buy my food bingo game for children for £4.99.

And who doesn’t love a treasure hunt?! This is a great game to play either at home or even in the supermarket if the cupboards are bare.

Deconstruct meals

Make food as simple as possible. Children take years to learn to be able to eat foods like casseroles or lasagne because all the different textures jumbled up together can be really overwhelming.

Instead present each part of a meal separately and let them serve themselves.

Visual is everything!

Children ‘eat with their eyes’ and so how food looks is key. What food looks like is often how children make decisions on whether it’s ‘accepted’ or not and so making it look fun is really how you make food appealing.

Consider the colours of different foods and how you might put them together in a meal. Next look at the different shapes. 

You want to have a variety of different colours and shapes of foods, this is where your kitchen gadgets such as spiralizers, cookie cutters or even skewers might come in handy if everything is starting to look the same.

Food on sticks carries an appeal but just be mindful of safety.

Scorecards

Children love to be judges and judging different foods for their merits is no different. 

I’ve designed a simple score card which allows your child to rate foods for their 5 sensory properties – whether it’s visually appealing, what it smells like, feels like, sounds like when they bite it and what it tastes like.

This works because children need to assess foods in this order before they accept them.

To download my scorecard, pop your details below.

    If you want to learn more about how the sensory system is associated with eating you can read all about it here.

    A young boy covering his nose and mouth with his hand with his mum trying to feed him.

    When should I ask for help?

    When your child is refusing lots of food and their food range is getting smaller rather than bigger, you may need to seek professional help. 

    Try my quiz to help you identify if your child has picky eating or if this is more of a feeding problem, then you’ll have an idea of whether you need extra help.

    Red flags that we Registered Dietitians look out for that indicate additional help is likely to be needed include your child having:

    • multiple food allergies or intolerances
    • omits an entire food group
    • eats less than 20 foods (not during weaning)
    • has ongoing weight loss or poor weight gain
    • has ongoing choking, coughing, gagging or spluttering during meals
    • has ongoing problems with vomiting
    • has severe reflux or cries or arches their back during all meals
    • has a history of eating and breathing difficulties
    • has not been able to transition from baby food purees to solid foods
    • avoids certain textures of food
    • has a parent with a current or previous eating disorder in addition to the child not gaining weight (this is because you as a parent may need additional support around food parenting rather than being the cause of your child’s feeding issues)
    • when their aversion to food affects family life or social interactions

    And if you’ve enjoyed what you’ve learned here and want to work with me further then you may want to join the waitlist for the Happy Healthy Eaters Club

    This members-only club teaches you how to raise a child who skips to the table (without you having to ask 50 times first), sits down, and happily munches away.

    You’ll learn about parenting techniques as well as nutrition so that you can nip fussy eating in the bud (or prevent it before it begins). 

    It’s all about making you’ll feel safe in the knowledge your child has eaten their nutrients, that they’ll sleep well, grow healthy bones and brains, and not pick up all those bugs.

    Our aim is for your little one to become excited to try new foods, to make your family mealtimes are a breeze without a reward, bribe, or iPad insight…oh  and that you haven’t spent hours in the kitchen cooking up different meals for everyone either. And I promise you… you’ll no longer be scraping rejected food from the floor! Here’s the link to learn more: https://www.thechildrensnutritionist.com/hhec-open

    Sarah Almond Bushell Registered Dietitian and Children's Nutritionist
    Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD MBDA – Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist

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    meet Sarah

    I’m Sarah, a Registered Dietitian, Children’s Nutritionist and mummy from East Sussex. My blog is to guide & inspire you with information about weaning, nutrition, food and toddler feeding. Learn more about me here.

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