How to Use Food Exploration to Ease Picky Eating

Main image for the article [How to Use Food Exploration to Ease Picky Eating]. Pictured is toddler threading a string with noodles.

Did your parents ever say the famous line “Stop playing with your food!” when you were growing up? Mine sure did! And although playing with food was totally unacceptable in the past, it’s now associated with so many benefits that truly can help if you are dealing with a toddler who is overly cautious of certain foods.

Toddlers are learners. They thrive off exploring new environments. They touch and feel things, they taste things, and they are constantly analyzing their surroundings. Why should food be any different? I want you to think of a time when you had to try a new food. What did you do? Did you smell it first? Poke it with your fork? Take a small bite before diving in? Your toddler is no different! Instead of banishing food play from the table, try encouraging them to explore their food! Allowing your toddler to be a food explorer can make a world of difference in the progression they make in accepting new foods, and can actually help curb their tendencies to refuse them. 

I know what you’re thinking… it sounds messy. It also might seem like playing isn’t the goal…eating is! But I can assure you this is a tried and true trick that can help your toddler increase the variety of food in their diet and help ease their stress around the food they are exposed to….which leads to eating! Let me help you make mealtimes more fun for you and your toddler!

Why are toddlers so stressed/cautious around certain foods?

Have you ever wondered why toddlers are so frightened/anxious to try new foods? Why do they seem to always resist? Why do they poke at it and stare at it and just push it away without even trying sometimes? Well, it’s mostly out of their control and completely normal! Toddlers often have what we call neophobia, which is the fear of trying new things, and it’s very common in children as they progress through the early stages of childhood. It’s actually an evolutionary instinct. Think way back to the days when humans lived in the wilderness. As toddlers became more mobile and were more likely to wander off on their own, they’d come across lots of potentially poisonous foods. As a built-in protective mechanism, toddlers are literally designed to be weary and cautious of new food to protect them from ingesting something unsafe. While that was super helpful 1000 years ago, it’s not so helpful now after slaving away to make a super edible & safe meal! Neophobia is important to be aware of as you begin introducing a greater variety of foods into their diet, and it’s important as parents that we try not to retreat back to safe foods we know are tolerated well. Because…although they are naturally cautious, they’re also naturally curious! Allowing them to explore their food at their own pace can help decrease their neophobia, really get to know their food and the properties in a more intimate way, and will help them to get over their fear!

Why a food explorer?

Food exploration is important because this is simply how toddlers and preschoolers learn best – by engaging in play based learning. This is a natural form of learning for them, and it’s typically how they learn to do anything during this stage of their development. By allowing them to explore their environment, or learn a new skill by exploring and figuring it out on their own through trial and error, you’re allowing them to build more confidence and long term skills. Toddler’s typically explore new things by determining…”What is it?” “What is it for?” “What does it smell like?” “How does it feel?” This is how they gather information, and learning to like new foods and how to eat them is no exception.

So what better way to achieve play based learning at the table than by becoming a food explorer (or food scientist)? Just like a scientist, you have to explore all the properties of an object by experiencing them. You need to investigate on your own over and over to formulate an opinion or fact around the topic (aka food!).

I also often talk about the importance of reintroducing foods through repeated exposure, but remember, a successful exposure isn’t only counted when food is actually eaten! Touching, smelling, licking, smushing and interacting with food in any way is also considered successful a exposure, with touch being the sense that can lead to a higher chance of your toddler actually eating the food! Incorporating food exploration into your family meals can push things along quicker and allow your toddler to become more confident in this process by using their own way of becoming familiar with the food. Food exploration is simply focusing on building a relationship with food, in their own quirky way, and it allows your toddler to bring fun to the table during their meal!

How to prompt food exploration

As parents, we can help guide our children to play with their food by encouraging them to get creative and get down to the basic sensory level of food – the taste, smell, sound, and texture. This helps them work towards the main goal which is eventually to eat it. Prompting them to play with their food and allowing them to squish the food on their hands and face, to compare their foods, to test… “What happens if I do this? What happens if I do that?”… can help them become more comfortable and get over any hesitation they may have. Don’t be afraid to make silly voices or become involved in role play with your child! Sometimes silliness can make a world of difference and show them that it is okay to play with their food! Some simple ideas you can say to prompt food play include:

“Does this food make a crunch sound when you break it?”

“Can you squish it between your fingers?”

“What colour is this food?”

“Can you make a smiley face out of these peas?”

“I bet I can make a taller tower out of these carrots than you can!”

“Let’s use the broccoli to make a forest on the table!”

One tip I would suggest is to fight the urge to automatically ask your toddler how the food tastes or if they liked it. This brings the focus back on eating the food instead of exploring it, and can make your child hesitant again if they feel like there is any pressure to try it.

Create fun games to play

Keep the fun going by creating fun games with food! This can be done either at the table during mealtime or as a separate activity, depending on what you have planned. Some activities that are fun to play while eating meals include:

  • Shape sort each food into different categories
  • Tic-tac-toe – use vegetables like green beans or asparagus to make the board
  • Colour sort each food on their plate into groups
  • Sword fight – use veggie sticks for swords! 
  • Make smiley faces – use vegetables like peas or corn, and be creative!
  • Tower building – this works well with carrot or radish coins
  • Use purees to your advantage – use mashed foods like potatoes, squash, or hummus to make fun landscapes with “mud” or “lava” and let their imagination run wild!

If your toddler is a very cautious or picky eater, doing activities away from the table can be more beneficial so that it isn’t associated with eating while they build up familiarity in the beginning. Pinterest is a great resource for ideas of crafts you can do that are food based that get down to the sensory level and can encourage them to explore their food – there really are endless opportunities! Some fun activities you can do together include:

  • Painting – use different flavours and colours of yogurt to create a masterpiece!
  • Make pictures out of uncooked pasta or other foods of choice
  • Food stamping – cut fruits and veggies in half and create different shapes

Fostering food exploration outside of mealtimes

There are many other ways besides during mealtime that you can encourage them to explore their food.

Cook together

Including your toddler in meal preparations can help them increase their awareness of food, and can eliminate fears that they may have before even sitting down at the dinner table. If you are cutting vegetables for example, give them one of each vegetable, either the whole form or cut up form, and let them explore it while you prep the remainder for the family meal. This is especially useful if your toddler is simply too young to help cut or prepare anything and can be a positive experience because they get to spend time with you in a safe and expectation free environment! This exposes your toddler to the touch, smell, and texture of the food on their own terms.

Grow your own garden

What toddler doesn’t want to play in the dirt! Vegetable gardening can be so exciting for toddlers and allows them to get dirty all while having fun and exploring new foods! They learn where their food comes from and get excited when they get to eat the food they grew. Allowing them to help plant the seeds, teaching them what each food is, and then letting them harvest them, greatly increases the likeliness that they will eat it in the future!

Take them grocery shopping

Taking your toddler to the grocery store is such an exciting experience for them because it is a new and fun environment. With the amount of colourful produce on display, this can be the perfect time for them to learn more about their food and explore their sense of touch. A suggestion is to let them pick the produce off the shelf and put them into the cart. Again, this allows them to use their sense of touch which is one of the most important senses when exploring their food. You can also use this time to ask questions about colour, if it is smooth or soft, or any other fun sensory questions you can think of – don’t be scared to be creative! I used to ask my boys all the time to find different foods based on the description…”Can you find me a purple vegetable in this aisle?”. It made grocery shopping more fun and had them forming positive interactions with foods.

If you took anything from this blog post today, I hope that is it to not underestimate the value of food play and how encouraging your toddler to explore their food can be a game changer! Food exploration is so important that I have an entire module on it in my Feeding Toddlers online course. It takes you step by step through how to initiate food exploration games at the table, with over 60 ideas and two food exploration worksheets to make it a fun activity for your toddler….all without them even realizing it’s moving them closer to the goal of eating! If you want help fostering your toddler’s love for play based learning this course can help guide you! Don’t be afraid to be silly and creative!


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meet edwena

Registered pediatric dietitian, mom of two and lover of all things related to baby and toddler feeding!


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