Toddler Will NOT Try New Foods, Mealtime Discipline?

Updated on October 20, 2009
E.K. asks from Issaquah, WA
18 answers

OK this question is for the mamas who have picky eaters, I have a very headstrong daughter who we have always had issues with her eating. We are past many of them and we do feel fine with the AMOUNT of food she is eating, we are just frustrated because she will not TRY new foods, not even one bite of most all new foods (especially "combined" foods like pasta & sauce, etc). We have tried just putting a new food on her plate over and over for 2 weeks and not making her eat it, and not making it a big deal and hoping she would get curious and try (didn't happen), and we've tried bribing with reading a book, etc if she tries a bite (which after much cajoling she will try it, but then cry and spit it out)

I am starting to wonder if I should start a sticker chart for every time she takes 3-5 bites of a new food, or rewarding her with a chocolate chip after her meal when takes a few bites of a new food. Any suggestions or tips? Is it a bad idea to do the chocolate chip thing? The good news is that the things she does eat are quite healthy. But, we'd really like her to expand on what she will eat and eat what we eat, but most things that we eat, she won't. Even a few things that she used to eat, but now she won't (grilled chicken, edamame). I'd like to try and tackle this issue before her baby sister gets older and starts modeling this behavior (the baby eats very well!)

Additionally, we have an issue with her getting up from the table CONSTANTLY while meals are going on. We have to remind and nag all the time. I was thinking of incorporating this into a sticker chart as well, getting a sticker each time she stays in her chair the whole time during a meal.

Has anyone tried this with success? Thanks!

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answers from Portland on

My two year old son is the same way with food. We started giving him the new V8 fusion juice since he wont eat veggies. Also, don't forget that two year olds don't have the capability to sit at the table for long periods of time like adults do. If she lasts 5 minutes at the table, that's been a successful dinner!

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answers from Portland on

A lot of good advice here... we went through this too. We picked up and started reading green eggs and ham and then at dinner we made a game of saying try them try them you will see... you may like them... and then if she tried them we "would say would you eat them in a box?", etc.

In general I don't like the if you eat it you get something else because after a while she would say she was done or didn't like something just to skip right to the treat or sticker. So now we just have treats when we have had good meals or it is a special night - not necessarily associated with one food or another. Now at nearly 3.5 sometimes she will try things sometimes she won't... she actually usually does better if I put it on the spoon or fork and walk away or if I tell her she can spit it out if she doesn't like it but that she still has to eat the other 2 things on her plate (we always put 2 things we know she likes and 1 new). Unless it is leftovers night she eats what we eat no exceptions and she sits at the dinner table until she is done and once she gets down the meal is over - but generally we require potty and wash hands just before dinner and a "may I be excused" before getting down. Does this always work... no, she's three - but good habits and examples by all at the table help.
Good Luck and keep trying.

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answers from Seattle on

An interesting physiological thing happens right around 2 years of age with nearly all children:

If their brain hasn't recognized a chemical signature as "food" BEFORE this magic window slams shut around the age of 2, their brain classifies it as a poison. How violently they react depends on the child (just as some adults could stomach eating dog poo if they had to, and others would be violently sick).

The good news: This only lasts for about a max of 3 years. Around the age of 5, you can feed them yakbutter tea, termites, or tuna salad...and they won't have that reaction.

The bad news: Any new food introduced over this time period will "register" as toxic for a period of 5-20 years.

(Remember, chem basil is basil is basil whether it's in pesto, dried, or fresh... or cillantro in chinese or mexican, or beef/pork/chicken/fish/goat/whatever.)

It's an evolutionary trait...typically the age of 2 is when children started being more mobile, and we all know how kids put everything under the sun in their mouths, and if it doesn't fit, they lick it. Those who had this response spit out toxic things, those who didn't ate the deadly berries.

So the very good news is that she eats enough. But the bad news is that you're going to either have to be patient... or resign yourself to fighting her body's natural response to being fed poison. Which is going to be aversion, and then fear/anger/loss of trust.

You can get creative, though. Start using the ingredients you know she likes, but just cook them in different ways. And start feeding baby sister everything under the sun from the age of 1-2. Everything you can think of. (Don't worry, you'll find you've forgotten a few things.) As long as you moderate the heat (caliente/spiciness) of food there's no reason not to feed the wee ones everything you eat, and very good reasons to do exactly that. But with big sis, you're going to have to be patient. She can't help it.

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answers from Portland on

She is only 2.5, so I would say don't stress about it and continue to give her something you know she will eat along with whatever you and your husband are eating.

My daughter would not touch eggs or bacon and we always offered, but she would always decline. She FINALLY asked for some at breakfast after age 4.

On the other hand, she loved PB&J sandwiches, but at age 5 does not want to eat them anymore. She does like steak with A1 now though!!

I expect her tastes to continually change and try not to worry too much about it, otherwise it becomes a power struggle.

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answers from Medford on

Just let her eat without pressure, give her a good multivitamin, and wait a few months then try again.

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answers from Portland on

I had some thinking to do around my son's own eating and ended up asking myself this very simple question: Which is more important in the grand scheme of things-- that he enjoy his food and eating, or that he eat exactly what I want him to eat?

This made it pretty simple. Forgive my bias, but I am a person who is still living down some food aversions because of being forced to eat food I didn't want at the time. And for what it's worth, I've discovered as a parent that I am far more relaxed with my son about food than I ever thought I would be. But it's worked for us.

We all hear of friends whose children have a cultivated palate; fun to brag about, but very rare. In working with young children over the years, what I have seen is that they like what they like and if it's not something they do like, they don't usually want it near, or heaven forbid, ON their plate. Breads, rice and pasta with Parmesan or butter are usually accepted; sauces, not so universally. Sweet things are often favored. But the more complex flavors adults often enjoy take many of us years and years to work into.

In our house, I am pretty laid back about food. My son probably eats more stuff in the yogurt/cottage cheese area; loves cheeses, apples, bananas and grapes, the usual mac-n-cheese (again with the cheese!), almonds, dried fruit, breadsticks, the occasional whole grain cracker, and sometimes will venture a bit of salmon, soup, or pasta salad. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are a hit too, as well as hard boiled eggs. Meal and snack foods look a lot alike, and I usually just put two choices out for him and let him at it. Apples and cheese, or eggs and pretzels...this is his speed.

I don't put a lot of new stuff on his plate and just let him ask us for a bite of ours when he's ready. This works better for us, and he can always have a serving of something if he's interested.And because of this, he's not hesitant to ask to try what we're having.

I am not a big fan of the One Bite Rule for two reasons: 1.As an adult, I would be very irate if I was told to take one bite of anything just to please someone else, so I have empathy for kids, and 2. I have seen more mealtimes than I care to recall end in tears and anger because of the negotiating that goes on with this sort of thing. "Just one bite and you can have..." It is truly painful to witness a child who just can't will themselves to try something that looks disgusting (to them) miss out on a dessert or another reward. And yes, most often it is the bribery that tends stymie the parent/child relationship.

If it were me, I'd leave the whole thing alone. Sticker charts just draw attention to the issue. Your daughter may also be responding to feelings that she can't explain or even be aware of, but it may be that she feels what/how she's eating is more important to you than She Herself is. Taking the pressure off can't hurt.

TWO Concrete ideas that have worked wonders for me and the families who have chosen to use them:

1. Snack boxes: Load up a plastic container with snacks you *know* she likes--just a few--and use food that will keep for the day. Then, when she says she's hungry, you can offer this to her and then let her choose what's in the box. This is a way for kids to eat without having to engage with their parents about WHAT to eat. Offer it whenever she's hungry between meals.

2. Earlier dinner/snack time: I swear this has been a lifesaver- offer a good snack when she's hungry around 4:30-5:30, not necessarily when dinner is ready. Then, at dinner time, when you and your husband are seated, let her come to the table and join you if she wants. Many kids need to eat before the adults do, and if her hunger is sated, she may be all the more pleasant if she does join you for supper. Then, feel free to offer her what you're having, and have a familiar option around too. Kids who aren't voraciously hungry do better in social situations, and it sounds like you would like dinner to be a social situation in your family.

It's very common for young children to pop on and off their chairs during a meal. (they tend to do this less in preschool or daycare, where other children are modeling the mealtime behaviors) This is in keeping with their having a short attention span, and many kids go through this phase around this age. If you want her to sit through a meal, consider offering some crayons and paper or another something to do. Asking a toddler/preschooler to sit through a full meal is huge...they can become bored and unpleasant. We let our son down to play when we can see that he's done eating, and this works for everyone. My husband and I enjoy our meal far more, and we know that as long as mealtimes are pleasant for everyone, we're okay.
(By the way, we rarely go out to dinner these days, as he's too active for a restaurant...when we do, it's not relaxing at all.)

If you can keep the eating enjoyable and low key, you'll find that in several years your daughter may be a person who appreciates a wide variety of foods. Of course, this may not happen until she's 20, but what's the rush? Just keep the house free of junk food and let her work through this on her own. Pushing our children often causes them to push back!

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answers from Seattle on

Do not bribe to eat or sit at the table. Like one of the other mothers said you are not a short order cook and she will eat when she is hungry. (check with her doctor if you are worried about her going with out food for a day or so) Keep offering her the last meal at snack time. Breakfast for her 1st snack, lunch for her 2nd, and dinner right before bed. She has to eat at teh table everytime.
One thing to do is make sure that you offer at least one thing you know she will eat. Such as if you are having spaggethi put it on her plate with sauce and without. You will haev waste but it is about choosing yoru battles.
Also make her getting down so boring she will want to join you at the table.
This all worked wonders with my brothers oldest and my step son. Still with my step son he will try new things everyonce in a while to "make sure" he still does not like it. Good luck and this will pass!

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answers from Portland on

I agree that kids this age can have reactions to food that are not permanent, for whatever mysterious reasons of heightened taste, texture, or brain chemistry. It's just great that she's eating healthy foods. From what I've heard in all mainstream and gentle parenting circles, do not use food (chocolate chips) as a reward. It leads to all kinds of complicated associations, habits, and expectations. Eat to just eat! If there's dessert, eat it because it's there, or because it's a special occasion, rather than to reward behavior. I believe that if you keep with the healthy foods for her, whatever she'll eat, and a variety on display, being gently offered to her and consumed by yourselves, it'll eventually get incorporated into her diet.

We have a restless toddler at the table. We found two things that helped. Reading to him, and recently we shifted the mealtime. He wasn't hungry at the same time any more, and by eating about 30-45 minutes later, he was able to just sit down and shovel in the food without working with him on it. We still read, but we don't have to talk him into eating. I believe that kids at this age just have a lot of energy and it's hard to sit still without something to focus on. Personally, I've been reading as I eat since I was a child. I love it, so it doesn't seem like a bad thing to me.

Best wishes!

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answers from Portland on

Your daughter's reluctance to try new foods is completely normal at her age. This could go on for the next month, or the next two or three years – every child is different. (She may even have very common sensory issues, in which texture, temperature and/or flavor actually cause her distress. Her crying suggests that possibility.)

I completely understand that you want your child to have a varied and healthy diet. And I will almost guarantee you that your insistence about getting her to eat other foods is actually making it harder for her to experiment freely. She is at a developmental stage where differentiating herself from her parents, and learning to discriminate and make choices for herself, is her "job."

You can help her take this large and necessary step in a positive way by sticking to what's important for her safety and general health. So restricting her food choices to those that are healthy is great. But you might be too close to the issue to notice that urging new foods on her is actually backfiring. Just having "try new foods" remain an issue at every meal, even if unspoken, is too forceful.

Please avoid bribery at all costs. Parents who try to "buy" their kids' cooperation are putting their authority at risk, and there will be times and issues in the future where your authority is terribly important. Meal "variety" during toddlerhood is truly not one of those important areas. And offering a sweet in exchange for a bite of healthy food sets a bad precedent.

Not to scare you, but there's plenty of research establishing that over-controlling parenting is a causative factor in the development of eating disorders later in life, especially for girls. It's ironic that parents trying to get their kids to eat more can end up contributing to anorexia, but it can happen.

Here's a story that might comfort you a bit; neighbors of ours had a son who simply would not eat vegetables as a toddler. They decided to simply stop serving him veggies unless he asked. A few years later he was asking for salads as his main course for meals.

Incidentally, trying to leave the table constantly at that age is also normal. These are little kids, and in the grand scheme of things, they are active, curious, and easily distracted. Expecting young children to sit at a boring (and perhaps stressful) table for 30-40 minutes is a relatively new development in human social evolution. Expecting persons with tiny stomachs to eat large meals is less healthy than more frequent, smaller meals. Try to see things a little more from her shoes. She'll get to be a better mealtime participant gradually, but probably not for the next year or two.

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answers from Portland on

HI E.,

Just keep at it. My adventurous eater decided to stop eating all meat for 5-6 months. It was awful and I worried about his fruit, yogurt and pasta diet. I finally just started a "tough" route reminding myself that my mother never let me decide what was for dinner we just ate what was available and so I started doing the same thing. It took about 2 weeks but he's eating a variety of foods again and I am thrilled. It could have been coinsidence but it doesn't seem that way to me. It cured other things too like the "I want...yogurt, no, oatmeal, no, cereal, no, french toast, no, eggs" debate for breakfast too. I just make breakfast, put it on the table and shout (as excited as possible without being "weird") breakfast!! And he runs over saying, YEAH, Breakfast!

Regarding the sitting at the table - we started by removing tempting/fun items and just close his bedroom door. If he gets down and looks around for fun we remind him that it's dinner time and we can play after dinner. If he says he's ready now, we tell him WE are still eating then have conversations with each other leaving him out. 9 out of 10 times he gets back up at the table because it's boring down there by yourself. The other time I attribute to not really being hungry.

I hope this helps and good luck! I hate eating problems! Almost as much as sleep problems!


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answers from Seattle on

We had this problem - esp. with our older daughter. Bribery (with McD toys, cookies, treats) didn't work because it kept escalating to where she wanted more and more for the same task. She was so small (<5% on growth charts) I really didn't want her to miss out on calories. BUT she still wasn't eating enough of the foods I considered essential for health and she would turn down good food at a meal knowing she could get an oatmeal raisin cookie or other treat when we went out and she said she was hungry.
The doctor suggested 2 things:
1) boosting the calorie intake of foods she would eat. Strips of Eggo waffles could be buttered and dipped in syrup; Half-n-half in her milk and on her cereal; extra cheese to her mac-n-cheese, etc.
2) NO between meal snacks or treats if she didn't eat a reasonable amount at a meal
So if she gets up from the table, calmly give her 2 or 3 chances to come back to eat with a warning of no other food until the next mealtime, and then PUT THE FOOD AWAY AND NOTHING TO EAT UNTIL the next mealtime -- only milk or water between meals which she has to drink sitting down. No carrying sippy cups all over the house, etc.
When our daughter would whine between meals we'd say "nothing until dinner" or "you didn't eat your good food, so you don't get dessert or snacks but you can have some water or milk if you need something". I was amazed at how fast/well this worked, especially with 2 kids "your sister can have a cookie because she ate all her mac-n-cheese and apple at lunch and you can't because you didn't". Continue to offer new foods along with old ones at meals, and eventually she'll try something. My daughter also caved into peer pressure eating with friends - if Cindy got Spaghetti-o's or grilled cheese, or ham on crackers, she wanted to have them too - even though she had previously turned such things down otherwise.
Good luck.

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answers from Bellingham on

It is always a battle for us too, but lately I have found that if I put little portions of what we are having on the high chair tray (he is still in the high chair to keep him sitting)and he finishes the piles that he likes and asks for more, than we tell him he can have more if he eats one or two bites from his other foods. If he doesn't try them then his dinner is done. Usually I make sure that there is at least one kind of food that I know he will eat. This seems to work to at least get him to try the foods. Now, I don't know if it is helping him to like the foods. The 15 times to like a food theory seems a little far fetched to me. Good luck!



answers from Seattle on

Ever tried reverse physcology? Remember the Christmas story - She asks her son, "How do the piggys eat?" and it gets him to eat his dinner every time? Well, whenever my little 2.5 year old has issues with not eating, a hard time sitting still in his chair etc. I just tell him in a silly, yet serious sounding voice, "Whatever you do, do NOT eat your spaghetti!" And he usually laughs, gets a devilish look on his face reaches for his fork and shovels it in! Then throughout dinner I may have to make noises or threaten him about his food (in a funny 2.5year old way) but he thinks its a hillarious game and goes for it everytime! I'm sure he will grow out of this, and I wont be doing it for too much longer, but it works like a charm! Sometimes, when he wont eat whats on his plate even if we know he likes it, we will tell him "Oh your not going to eat? Good! Then I'M going to eat it" and get our forks up like we're going to dig in. Then he straightens out and demands us to eat whats on our OWN plates and that this food is HIS and he'll sit right down and eat.

My niece use to - probably still is a picky eater,.. we would tell her (because shes a girl) that eating salad makes you beautiful,.. etc.. she was big into princess stuff so that worked sometimes too.

Try it out! It can't hurt! Let us know what works!


answers from Medford on

Offer the "new" food without anything else on the plate. If she eats the food (or tries it and you are sure she really doesnt like it) then give her more of it or an food that she already likes to finish off the meal. As long as there is food that she likes as an option she will never try new foods if she is a picky eater. Our daughter had a hard time with new foods until we tried this approach. Now at 4 she eats asparagis (sp?), broccoli, salad with vinigrett dressing...pretty much anything that we eat. We never make our kids (2 and 4) eat something if they truly dont like it but they have to try everything once. We tell them that if they truly dont like it (and you can usually tell by their faces) we wont make them ever eat it again, but they have to try...seems to work for us. Good luck!


answers from Seattle on


For a bit there I thought you were talking about MY 2 1/2 year old. She's not as picky as she used to be, but there are also meals where she'll take half a bite and say she's all done. We have a booster seat strapped to her chair so she sits taller at the table that has straps. If she's been refusing food all day I'll strap her in and let her sit there for a bit to see if she'll eat. She usually doesn't.

Anyway, long story short if she doesn't eat at least half the food at a meal she either gets it for the next meal, or just gets no food/drink till the next meal. When she's hungry enough she'll eventually eat.

Food is a major source of power for kids. Like the old adage says: You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. Same think here. All we can do as parents is offer the food. It's the child's decision to eat it.

Hope this helps,



answers from Seattle on

You could be describing my child, and i thank you for asking the question. It is nice to read other opinions.

We have decided that our best approach is to address behavioral issues, and let my daughter decide about food. We require that she prepare for dinner by using the potty and washing hands, that she sit at the table with us politely for the duration and asks to be excused at the end, and that she try one bite of each food on her plate before she can ask to be excused or for additional food.

I think, largely, this is a good approach. She can help set the table (she puts forks out), can sit with us for a full dinner (even at a restaurant), and has stopped the horrible gagging act whenever she has to try something new. We've even gotten compliments on her table manners!

We have our best luck when we just say 'this is how it is' and react calmly to whatever she does. Cajoling, discussing, punishing, whatever, just makes things worse. I think bribing makes things worse, too - we did it a few times, but, the bites were still eaten with much fussing and crying, and afterwards each tiny bite was accompanied by a demand for whatever she wants.

With the sitting, we have just said, a few times, if you don't stay seated at the table, we'll strap you in. Followed through, and she learned to accept it. (We do try to be reasonable about how long is long enough, but this almost never comes up anymore.)

With the gagging we just completely ignore it - any response from us made it worse. Ignoring it made is go away with in a meal or two.

We have also cut out the afternoon snack, and we give only water until after the trial bites are eaten (at which point she can ask for juice or milk), because we felt like she might be filling up on the wrong things before dinner. It helps a bit.

My biggest fear is that even that one bite might be too much. The more we engage in an argument about it, the more she is likely to dig in her heels. While she will mostly just eat the first bite now, she almost never moves on to bite 2, even if she claims she likes the first bite. There are also some nights when she doesn't eat it at all for a while, and she ends up at the table until bed time or while her dad and i get a treat and she doesn't. I really don't know if this is going to pay off in the end, and its a bit painful, but we feel like the request is reasonable, so we're giving it a shot. It is basically the approach we've used with success for other expectations (like staying in bed, or holding our hands in a parking lot).

There are a few other things that we are doing in conjunction with the meal time approach. We discuss various foods and how good they are at other opportunities (we talk about how vegetables help when she says her poop hurts, or about how dinner helps her grow when she is too short to reach something). We also involve her in the cooking process regularly, and let her try things while we cook.

Unlike one of the other posters, i don't think we're doomed to have kids who don't like anything. My daughter has tried, liked, and eaten, bacon, cheese, carrots, lettuce, and other things while cooking. (All the more frustrating that she won't eat them at the table!) I'm really just hoping that consistency and reasonable but real expectations for her will pay off in the end. *sigh*



answers from Seattle on

One thing we tell our 2 year old about staying in her chair is that if she gets down, she's telling us she wants her highchair instead. She's had twice in the past two months that she did get down because she wanted her high chair and that was okay. Normally, just the reminder is perfect to keep her in her chair. We're not punishing her, just letting her know what happens when she does something. This will probably only work if your youngest has a different chair to sit in while you're eating so they don't both need the same seat. You get the idea though I'm sure! :)

Our oldest eats anything we offer so I'm not sure I can help with that part of the question. One thing I heard when I was at a class on childhood nutrition was to refuse to be a short order cook. Make what you're making for the family and only that. Sounds like your daughter won't eat it. That's okay if she doesn't, but don't offer another option. Make sure she has a healthy option for breakfast the next day.

The other option (that might work better in your family) is to serve everything family style. Make the pasta, sauce, and grilled chicken and serve them each in their own bowl on the table. Let your daughter decide how they go on the plate. You're still only cooking one meal, but you're offering her some control over what she eats.



answers from Anchorage on

I think this is just toddlers in general. Mine just started trying new foods, and still will not actually eat them. We usually have a small sweet after dinner, but in order for the meal to be over so we can get to the small sweet (berries with whipped cream or something else simple) both boys must try at least one bite of everything on their plate. I have never beleived in forcing my boys to eat, but I think it is important for them to try things. My 4 year old will only take one bite of anything new, and say he does not like it, but he is not allowed to spit it out because I find that kind of rude. :)

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