Encouraging New Foods Through Play

August 18, 2021 | By Child Care Aware of Kansas

By Diana Floyd, RD, LD, Kansas State Department of Education

Originally published in the Summer 2020 Issue of Kansas Child Magazine

Getting children to try new foods can be challenging. Children can be picky eaters and consume less than the optimal variety of foods each day. Parents and child care providers might become frustrated when new foods are prepared and served, only to go uneaten by their small charges. Children can be fearful of new foods. How can we as child care providers and parents make trying foods less scary? Maybe it’s time to tell children they can play with their food! Encouraging children to take a hands-on approach to experience new foods through sensory activities and stories can make sampling new foods less daunting.

Start by stepping away from the table to a different location, such as an activity center, a story-time mat, or a garden to introduce new foods. Removing the pressure of tasting new food and focusing instead on the appearance, color, smell, and texture of the food can make introducing new foods less intimidating and more of an adventure. When introducing a new food such as a vegetable, consider using the whole vegetable, just harvested if possible.

  1. Pass around the vegetable, allowing the children to feel the weight and texture of the exterior. Discuss how it is grown, such as underground, on top of the ground, or hanging above the ground.
  2. Then pass around the same vegetable that has been sliced in half so the interior can be seen. Encourage the children to talk about the peel or skin that covers it and the layers that can be seen inside. Ask children to smell and feel the texture of the inside and compare it to the outside.
  3. Finally, provide sliced, diced, or spiraled portions of the vegetable to each child. This can be done by placing the pieces on a napkin or small plate or in small individual bags. Encourage children to see if it is crispy or smooth and whether or not it has a distinctive smell.

Handwashing before this activity is help­ful since some children will not hesitate to eat the sample pieces. Others might only want to watch the activity from a safe distance.

After repeating the activity and story with children, the new vegetable might be introduced at the table as part of a meal or snack. Each repetition of the story, the activity, and the menu item presents one more opportunity for the child to experience a new food without the pressure to taste it. Consider introducing the new food as an extra at mealtime or as a snack, especially if the prepared ap­pearance is different than experienced during the activity. Family-style dining is especially helpful when unfamiliar foods are served since the children control the amount of the food item they take.

Research demonstrates that this type of sensory play increases the likelihood of chil­dren eating unfamiliar vegetables. Acceptance also increased if the vegetable was featured in a storybook that was read before introducing the new food. The combination of the storybook and sensory play produced greater re­sults than either activity separately. While a vegetable was used in the research and as an example here, similar activities and stories can be used with fruits, whole grains, dairy products, meats, and unfamiliar combination dishes.

Consider involving parents by sharing in­formation about the new foods that are be­ing introduced. Challenge parents to look for these items at the grocery store or farmer’s market. Consider providing recipes that fea­ture the new food to encourage families to experience new foods together.

If you are looking for resources and nu­trition education materials, consider the following:

• USDA Team Nutrition has a variety of nutrition education resources found at: https://www.fns.usda.gov/tn/ digital-nutrition-resources-kids

• Nutrition, storage and handling information on a variety of fruits and vegetables at: https://fruitsandveggies. org/fruits-and-veggies/

• Visit the public library to check out children’s books that feature specific foods.

1. Birch, L.L., McPhee, L., Shoba, B.C., Pirok, E., and Steinberg, L. What kind of exposure reduces children’s food neophobia? Looking vs. tasting. Appetite. 1987; 9: 171–178

2. Carruth, B.R., Ziegler, P.J., Gordon, A., and Barr, S.I. Prevalence of picky eaters among infants and toddlers and their caregivers’ decisions about offering a new food. J Am Diet Assoc. 2004; 104: s57–s64

3. Remington, A., Añez, E., Croker, H., Wardle, J., and Cooke, L. Increas­ing food acceptance in the home setting: A randomized controlled trial of parent-administered taste exposure with incentives. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012; 95: 72–77

4. Fildes, A., van Jaarsveld, C.H.M., Wardle, J., and Cooke, L. Parent-administered exposure to increase children’s vegetable acceptance: A randomized controlled trial. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014; 114: 881–88