What to do if your kids won’t eat learning it foods

Over the past few weeks, we have talked about both family style meals and how to handle when our children only eat their love it foods.

Still, many moms are likely wondering a question I hear echoed again and again. It goes like this:

Family style meals diffuse the battles for sure. But my picky eaters always tend to pick the same foods (fruit, bread, etc) so I wonder if it's still worth doing if they don't really try anything new. Know what I mean?

That’s why in this week’s post, I am going to dissect this simple and yet common question a bit more to get to the Achilles heel of this question:

...Is it still worth doing if they don’t really try anything new.

I think if there is one question that gets to the heart of my mission at Veggies & Virtue, it might be this.

As a health practitioner, it is my job to convince parents that yes - it is “worth it” to invest in our children’s health in this way, early on, through feeding them in ways that help them grow into being a competent eater. As a parent, however, I recognize firsthand how defeating it can be to feed kids who aren’t naturally adventurous eaters or inclined to try everything offered. So let’s take time this week to evaluate this underlying wonder so many of us parents have amidst the untouched meals.

In this post, we will:

  1. Redefine the definition of “worth” (in feeding/eating)

  2. Address a progress > perfection mindset shift

  3. Identify more than 25 ways to help your child learn to like new foods

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What to do if your kids won’t eat learning it foods

Note: This page includes affiliate links. All opinions are my own.

Our definition of “worth”

The reality is that for most of us parents, we use an objective measure of “worth” in the feeding relationship based on if/whether and how much our child ate of a given food.

It is understandable why we look at a meal and deem its success in that way. But I promise you, you are setting yourself up for failure, frustration, and disconnect in your feeding relationship with your child if we continue to consider you “wins” in such a way.

If you have ever followed my Food Win Wednesdays before, you know that I get about as granular as it gets.

That’s because whether it is in my own family or in working with clients, rarely ever are our most genuine wins big, overnight ones.

Instead, the success we see in raising healthy eaters tends to be small...really small. At to that it also being VERY slow, particularly with kids who are picky eaters, and it is no wonder why so many parents I work with feel like they are getting no where in trying to offer healthy options. This continual questioning of if progress is happening leads to a parent’s natural wonder of if all their time, all their energy, all the food that gets wasted is really even worth it.

So let’s redefine worth here.

Worth is NOT an objective measure of what is eaten (or not). If it was, then so many of us would have to reduce everything we do as part of our role in the Division of Responsibility in feeding as worthless.

But what if we re-evaluated worth in the context of feeding the same way we do in other areas of parenting?

  • Is it worth it to drive our kids 30 minutes each way for a 15 minute swim lesson that costs $35 per class when they still don’t even know how to swim? How long is it worth it to us to consistently show up and entertain this crazy song and dance when our kids still can’t swim?

  • Is it worth it to us to commit to singing the ABC’s 842 times before our kids ever echo it back? How long is it worth it to us to consistently show up and entertain practicing letters, uppercase and lowercase, sight words, and board books when our kids still can’t read?

  • Is it worth it to us to commit to reminding our kids 10,052 times as toddlers to be kind if they are going to steal toys and hit other kids anyways? How long is it worth it to us to consistently show up and entertain play dates where they practice how to play nicely and kindly treat others, outings where they learn how to act in public, and social situations where we face more meltdowns than make-mama-proud moments?

If we look at any of these common things we commit to doing with our kids as binary worth of swimmer or not, reader or not, respectable member of society or not, then a lot of us are still flat failing - myself included.

That’s because for most of us, we are still in the trenches. Our kids are still so little. And with that, their skills are still so immature. Sure we have invested A LOT into their eating and hopefully, their eating well. But for many of us, it is still really hard to see the worth.

So we can either decide, “this is worthless” and stop showing up to meal after meal and snack after snack. Or, we can decide that we are going to keep entertaining the idea that someday, down the road, this investment we are making in our small kids will all prove worth it…one small win at a time.

Just as our kids grow into capable swimmers, readers, and kind citizens of society, they too will grow into competent eaters. We just need to continue to show up, even when meals go untouched, and to zoom in our lens a bit closer. If we look close enough, we can begin to see this approach to feeding is worth it. The return on our investment just isn’t overnight.

Progress not perfection

This is kind of a cliche phrase and yet, for good reason particularly to us as parents.

Our kids eating perfection is not what we are after. What we do want, and how we will begin to redefine “worth” in the feeding relationship is by seeing gradual progress.

So what does that look like?

One resource that I love and think is not shared nearly enough in the feeding world is this diagram of the steps of eating.

Created by feeding experts from the SOS Approach, this visual puts to shame the often recited advice to “expose your kids to something 10-20 times.” This advice literally makes me cringe when I hear people say it. Even well-intended professionals say it ALL. THE. TIME.

The reason I rarely quote this piece of evidenced-based advice though is because I know firsthand how defeating it can be when you do offer a new food 10...11...12...20+ times and still, your kid doesn’t care. Then what? Are parents just supposed to stop offering it?

No. Parents should be encouraged to be look for signs of progress with that one food as well as in signs for progress in their child’s overall diet that are indicative of progress in other areas as well.

This diagram, in my opinion, does that.

It gets to the point that SO many pieces of advice on picky eating miss. That is, children may take years to learn to like new foods. If it is a nourishing food though, nutritionally, socially, spiritually, or physically, then we as parents are to continue to help them learn to like it in as many age-appropriate ways as possible for as long as possible until they learn to like it. We are all entitled to have foods we “don’t like.” However, when our children are still young and often have many more foods on their “don’t” versus “do” like lists, we set them better up for success in developing a lifelong healthy relationship with all foods when we evaluate progress in an ongoing manner.

That is, progress is made when a child moves from learning to like a new food to loving it by way of:

  • Tolerating it

  • Interacting with it

  • Smelling it

  • Touching it

  • Tasting it

  • Eating it

Identifying the 32 steps to eating that are actually required to move a child from offering to eating a new, “learning it” food can be a transformational thing for parents. In doing so, both “worth” and “progress” are quickly redefined into smaller, simpler acts of “eating” that don’t undermine the progress made even when no food is actually consumed.

Learning it foods

There is a reason why I never labeled this category, “Don’t like it” foods. That would quickly blacklist a lot of foods that we would like for our children to enjoy over the course of their childhood but ones that they might not instantly do so with or might enjoy for a time only to later reject. That’s because, like swimming, reading, and relating with others, our children have to LEARN these things. As infants, they have to learn how to eat. As toddlers and then throughout their childhood, they have to learn what to eat. So how do we help them do that?

Let’s evaluate some strategies for how to help a child who won’t eat any of their learning it foods.

What would you do if your kids wouldn’t eat any of the learning it foods?

Chances are, we are jumping too far ahead of ourselves and assuming our child to immediately tolerate and instantly eat a new food. Since we often hear it can take 10-20 exposures for a child to learn to like something, we often look for quick success or at least obvious progress. However, this may not be the case.

When we slow down the learning to like process to be more alike any other process we are familiar with helping our child grow and develop in, we begin to see strategies for smaller, every day successes. We begin to redefine “success” and the worth of our child’s efforts and our own, and we begin to recognize the progress by not focusing on perfection.

Instead, you can help your child learn to like new foods by helping them to:

Tolerate learning it foods

  • Parent can select the learning it food to put near child in the grocery cart

  • Parent can prepare the learning it food in the kitchen while child is present

  • Parent can eat the learning it food in front of child

  • Parent can serve the learning it food family style on the table near child

  • Parent can help pass the learning it food around child at the table

Favorite tool to help kids tolerate learning it foods: visual grocery lists like this one, family style meals

Interact with learning it foods

  • Child can help select the learning it food at the store and place it in cart

  • Child can help prepare the learning it food

  • Child can self-serve the learning it food from a family style meal

  • Child can help pass the learning it food to other family members at the table

  • Child can serve other the learning it food

Favorite tool to help kids interact with learning it foods: Foost first knives, crinkle cutters, apple spiralizer, cherry pitter, salad spinners, Little Partners Learning Tower, DIY sensory bin, tongs

Smell learning it foods

  • Child can smell the learning it food in a room

  • Child can smell the learning it food at the table

  • Child can smell the learning it food in front of them

  • Child can lean down and smell the learning it food

  • Child can pick up and smell the learning it food

Favorite tool to help kids smell learning it foods: lemon juicer, zester

Touch learning it foods

  • Child will poke the learning it food with one finger tip

  • Child will hold the learning it food in hand

  • Child will allow the learning it food to touch their face (chin, cheek, nose)

  • Child will touch the learning it food to their lips or teeth

  • Child will place the learning it food at the tip or on top of their tongue

Favorite tool to help kids touch learning it foods: nutridashe food picks, other pokers, muffin tin meals, cookie cutters, dylbug products (use code veggiesandvirtue for 10% off orders)

Taste learning it foods

  • Child licks the learning it food

  • Child bites off a piece of the learning it food and spits it out immediately

  • Child bites off a piece of the learning it food and spits it out after a number of seconds or chews

  • Child chews the learning it food, swallowing some and spitting out other

  • Child chews and swallows the learning it food with a drink and later without

Favorite tool to help kids taste learning it foods: Official taste tester card (in my Love it, Like it, Learning it Starter Kit)

Eat learning it foods

  • Child eats the learning it food independently!

In sharing a summary of the 32 steps to eating, I believe parents are better able to understand why children need to be given endless opportunities to learn to like learning it foods. With some foods, a child may progress from tolerating to eating rather quickly. With others, a child may need several exposures to even move from one category to the next. Other times, a child may be eating a food and regress back to the beginning of the process for some time. Whatever pathway a child takes in general, overall, or with a given food, parents can take heart that progress is taking place when they see their child initiate steps towards eating.

Next Steps

I challenge you, if you are struggling to know what to do with the long list of foods your child is still learning to like, do this.

  1. Print out my Love it, Like it, Learning it download. It includes 150 suggested foods and a Love it, Like it, Learning it template to plug each of these foods into for your child/family. You can do so by entering your email here.

2. Go through the foods you most want your child to learn to like. These might be because they’re commonplace in your family’s diet, have nutritional benefits lacking in your child’s diet, or are a food similar to a known love it food that you think your child could easily learn to like. Whatever the food, identify 5-10 foods you want to begin being more intentional about exposing your child to.

3. Start identifying where your child is at in their steps to eating towards each learning it food. Meet them where they are at and commit to allowing them to work through each step at their own pace, while also fostering a feeding environment that gently encourages them along in the process. Help them to find ways to tolerate, interact with, smell, touch, and taste these foods!

This process is not a quick fix but it does create lasting results. We can raise up children who eat what they are told OR children who learn to love the healthy options offered. By allowing our children the independence to self-feed learning it foods within the context of what, when, and where we offer them, can help them to lose their neophobia and gain a newfound freedom with new foods one sniff, touch, and taste at a time!