How I Got My Fussy Toddler to Eat (Almost) Anything

Updated on July 20, 2020
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Mo Rita is a mom, a teacher, a pet owner, and a self-proclaimed artist. She writes a humor blog, Fries With Mayo, about these topics.

When my son (now almost 7) was a baby, he ate almost anything I put out for him. Pureed liver? Awesome! Leek and potato mash? Sweet! He would cry when the bowl was empty, and there was never a full bowl that didn't put a smile on his chubby face.

Then, he turned 2, and he decided he wasn't gonna have it anymore. He'd been in a home daycare since he was 4 months old, and he began to understand that loving broccoli was not what the other kids did. The kids were all older than he, and he totally respected their 4-year-old opinions on food.

Suddenly, the honeymoon was over. Yes, broccoli was now yucky. Chickpeas were, too. Pretty much anything but the Goldfish crackers and chicken nuggets served to toddlers at daycare was off the table (figuratively—he wasn't a thrower, though maybe he was and I'm blocking that part of my memory).

Now, I was raised to eat everything on my plate and not complain. This did not stop my youngest brother from spreading his peas around the plate and under chunks of mashed potatoes to make it look as though he were finished, and I still do not like black pepper to this day. However, I do like almost everything and I'm not afraid to try stuff.

I did not, though, feel like battling it out with my child every night after coming home from work and daycare and after not having seen him all day. I figured there had to be a good way to get him to try different foods and to realize they were not that bad.

Tah-dah! As I lay in bed one night, contemplating the meaning of life, I came up with the Three Foods Method. Seriously . . . I get my best ideas right as I'm falling asleep or as I'm driving to work in the morning. I tried it, it worked, and now I'm going to share it with you.

Three Foods Method for getting a toddler to try new foods
Three Foods Method for getting a toddler to try new foods

The Three Foods Method

  1. Make a list of foods your child loves. At this time in my child's life, favorites included French fries and chicken nuggets (he now dislikes the latter and rarely eats them). The foods on this list are the proverbial "big guns."
  2. Make a list of bland and non-exciting foods that your child tolerates but doesn't love. In my son's case, examples included peas, macaroni, and bread (now, homemade bread is his favorite food in the world). These are free foods.
  3. Decide on some foods you would like your child to try regularly. "They" say that in order for a child to like a certain type of food, the child must be exposed to it and have tried it on at least 5–12 different occasions. That means 5–12 different days or meals, not 12 forced bites of Brussels sprouts in one meal.
  4. Put a tiny portion of one of each of the three food categories on a plate. Each portion must be small enough that your child can eat all of the food on the plate and still be hungry. It might help to separate the foods into brightly colored little silicone cupcake liners (I like these liners because they are colorful and there are many). I cannot stress this enough: Start with really small portions. Like, one piece of broccoli, two French fries, and a 1/2 of a chicken nugget.
  5. Explain the rules to the child: He should eat all the food on the plate. If he does, he can then get refills on any of the foods that were on his plate (including the favorite). If he does not, he can get unlimited refills of the boring food, but there will be no refills on the beloved food.
  6. Then, let the child decide, and you follow through, but make sure not to show any emotion throughout this process. You want this to be a completely neutral experience. If the child eats the favorite and the boring food and refuses to try the new food, put the good stuff away, put the new food away, and say, "OK, you tried! Thanks." Then, refill his or her plate with the neutral food. (Feel free to have some of the good stuff yourself if you ate everything on your plate, just for a bit of motivation.) If he eats everything on his plate, say, "Great job! You tried everything! What would you like next?" and let the child have at it, although you may want to serve some neutral food, too, if that happens to be healthier than the favorite.

Why It Worked for Us

I'm not a parenting expert. My child does not have special needs or sensory issues, and I have a resolve of steel borne from 20 years of teaching preteens and teenagers. What works for me and my son may not work for you.

However, this worked for us because my son is extremely motivated by foods he loves. In fact, there are times I'm quite sure he would sell his soul for chocolate, given half the chance. To this day, he tries new foods mostly for the chance to have a mini chocolate bar after dinner, and if he refuses to eat another mouthful even though it means no candy, then it pretty much means there's nothing short of gavage that would get that stuff down.

It also works because I'm not starving him if he doesn't try the food. I'm not rewarding him, but he still gets plenty to eat that he can tolerate without gagging. Also, taking emotions out of food can go a long way to making new foods less scary.

I stopped using the Three Foods method when my son was about three because he was so used to trying new foods that he didn't really even complain anymore. I do still offer new foods in small portions in cupcake liners on his plate, and I do the same with foods he hates. The other day, he had black beans (2 tbsp.) and he snarfed them down as quickly as possible, with a lot of water, to get his mini chocolate after dinner. He did the same with the one black olive slice I gave him on a previous day.

There are many foods he now likes that he used to hate: raw bell peppers, pickles, white beans, smoked salmon. He loves broccoli again and frequently requests it for dinner. And if there's still something he dislikes? Nine out of ten times, he eats it.

And he does it without complaint.

Most of the time.

© 2020 Mo Rita

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