As I’m slowly making my way back to blogging, I’ve been trying to get my (literal) house in order before I am ready to commit to posting regularly here again. One of the issues that I want to make sure I have the creative energy for at home is getting back to addressing picky eating with my 5-year-old son. 

If you’ve followed me for awhile, especially on Instagram, you already know that I’ve been working hard for years to address my son’s picky eating and help him expand his palette and culinary horizons.

He was never a voracious eater but, like many kids, he went from trying most of what I offered him and eating a reasonably balanced diet to wanting more and more control over what was served and what he ate. The result was a fairly limited diet, which I supplemented with smoothies, until he started rejecting the smoothies too.

Pandemic isolation and burnout led to less and less variety, and less energy on my part toward researching and implementing different strategies to combat picky eating. In early 2021, I enrolled in Better Bites, an e-course geared toward empowering caregivers to address their kids’ fairly extreme picky eating, but after a few months of it, I had to step back as pregnancy morning sickness and exhaustion took over. (This post is not sponsored by, or in any way affiliated with or endorsed by Better Bites, by the way!)

As a result, my son has backslid badly in his eating this year, and I am finally getting the energy and motivation to dive back in. 

Which brings me to the picky eating hack that I accidentally discovered the other day, which has been a game changer for us. 

My Magic Picky Eating Strategy

We were sitting down to dinner and my son asked for more bread – one of his few safe foods. I told him I couldn’t get him any more at the moment, but he could fill up on the other foods on his plate while he waited.

There were carrots, the only vegetable he’ll eat, on his plate, which I pointed out. But he refused to eat them because they were purple and yellow (rainbow) carrots, not the orange ones he prefers. 

I was suddenly hit with inspiration for some food play

Food play is a strategy that demystifies scary new foods, I had learned from Better Bites. So, I asked my son if he thought the different color carrots would taste different from one another, and which color carrot he thought he would like best.

Then, because he loves science and is obsessed with Ada Twist, Scientist, I quickly improvised an “experiment” in which we’d come up with a “hypothesis” about what each carrot would taste like and then do a blind taste test. As soon as I said the word “hypothesis”, he was interested (if you’ve watched Ada Twist on Netflix, you know there is a catchy song about hypotheses). 

I cut up some carrots of each color and he did a blind taste test with my husband while I recorded their impressions of each carrot. My son willingly popped some of each color carrot into his mouth, even after the taste test was over, and he also followed the game by eating an unrelated new food (goat cheese) that he was refusing before the experiment. 

My mind was blown. 

I did a similar game again the next night, this time with different kinds of pasta, including a green veggie pasta that he would not have even sat in front of otherwise. And you know what? He tried it during the taste test – this time it wasn’t even a blind test – and ate some more after we were done. 

And a third night: we had a cheese blind taste test experiment, after which he ate three quesadillas, a sometimes-but-mostly-never food prior to that experiment. It is magical. 

Why did this strategy work? 

You probably already know that I am not a nutritionist, and I have a sample size of one stubborn 5-year-old, but here is my theory on why gamification worked to reframe unfamiliar or non-favorite foods as less threatening. 

First, my son, like other kids this age, is really into imagination play and exploring identities right now. He loves to tell everyone that he is a scientist, which to him means an expert in whatever the topic of conversation is at the time. This game exploits his current love of Ada Twist, and general interest in science. There is also a facet of this related to control, at least for him: by declaring himself an expert, that means he has some authority over the situation, and this science framing reinforced his love of – and need for – more information, understanding, and control of his world. 

Next, presenting the new foods in a taste test format – always coupled with, and therefore buffered by, familiar “safe” foods – removed any power dynamic from the interaction. Rather than me saying “you need to try something new” and him digging his heels in and refusing, it was just part of the game to try something new and not overthink it. This is in line with the no-pressure approach that I know has worked for us in the past, and which has been shown to be extremely effective for picky eaters in general. 

Finally, focusing on the game and letting him “decide” what foods he wanted to eat (spoiler: I would have served the safe option anyway!) greatly removes the pressure and tension that inevitably bubbles to the surface of every meal between a picky eater and a weary parent who is tired as hell of serving plain pasta with every meal. I believe that is why he not only tried the new versions of safe foods (like the purple carrot or green pasta), but also why he was significantly more willing to try unrelated foods after the experiment was complete. 

How effective is this strategy?

I don’t know yet, exactly. 

So far, very, though I’ve started with the easiest foods: those which closely resemble his most reliable safe foods. 

However, this is a variation on another strategy I learned from Better Bites, called Food Chaining. Food chaining is a process by which you take baby steps from one very familiar, reliably-eaten food to different forms and preparations, in order to introduce a new but more challenging food into the kid’s diet. Think: chicken nuggets to regular chicken breast. 

What comes next?

I really think that gamifying the practice of trying new foods, and employing it consistently will be helpful for us over the long term. The most important skills for the parent of any picky eater are patience and stamina, though, which I admit I am short on these days. 

My hope is that this strategy of gamifying new foods in “taste test” formats, removing the pressure of eating by distracting from any power dynamics, and pairing new foods with familiar and similar safe foods will be the key to making some progress toward a more varied and adventurous diet in 2022.