I spend a lot of time caring for a three-year-old that is a pretty picky eater. However, the stuff he does eat is generally fairly healthy stuff. Lately he has started gagging on food he isn't sure about before he tries them. Normally, I'd just continue with the "you need to try it" thing (as would his mother - her parenting style is actually quite similar to mine which is REALLY nice!) However, the thing about this one is that they are honest gags followed by coughing and sometimes even a little throw-up. I think he just gets himself so worked up in his head about how it will be awful that then when he tries the thing it really is that awful.

One example is at a party he gagged on peanut butter and ritz cracker sandwiches (one of his absolute favorites) because they were made to look like spiders with two raisin eyes (he loves raisins) and eight crunchy chow mien noodles (which his mom had picked off already). That example alone isn't a big deal, but it definitely shows how it is really in his head and not about actual taste or texture.

Has anyone else experienced this? what did you do?

  • I think you are right that this is probably an anxiety issue. Does he eat from all four food groups (even if it is only one or two things from each one)?
    – MJ6
    Commented Oct 27, 2013 at 23:11
  • 1
    Yes, but mostly likes fruit (what kid doesn't like fruit after all?) Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 4:41
  • 1
    Mine is turning 3 this month. Same thing. She can eat, when she wants to. New food....well she's puked on herself twice in the last week. She feels really bad about it. We try to ask her what she WANTS to eat (thats not junk food) and we really dont get a response. So yeah, upvote on the question.
    – Bob
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 0:03

3 Answers 3


We had this problem mostly with meats but also for other foods as well. We found the following works well (suggested by occupational therapist):

First stage: Kiss the new food. That's all... no pressure to even put in mouth. Do it for a few meals.

Second stage: "Rocket it" - put in mouth and immediately spit out into napkin or trashcan. Make it fun- doesn't have to be polite. Again repeat for a few meals.

Third stage: Hold in mouth 10s before spitting out.

Fourth stage: Actually eat a bite - a very small bite, again for several meals, and then gradually increase up to a "normal" portion.

It takes a while but we found it does work. Eventually once they get the process it takes fewer repetitions at each step, or you can start to leave out the earlier steps altogether.

  • The little guy referenced in the question thought the idea of kissing the food was funny! It loosened him up anyway and got him closest to eating some new things without gagging - He decided he liked spaghetti (the sauce got on his lips when he kissed it) but it hasn't worked on some other foods - still it comes closest - thanks. Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 13:53

Traditionally you avoid "rewarding" children for trying new foods. Thus, you don't say "have three spoons of broccoli and then you can have pudding" because that creates bad incentives and teaches the child that the food is yucky.

But there's an interesting new approach where you ask the child to try a tiny bit, and reward them with a sticker. Soon, children are eating much more than the tiny bit you asked them to, and they enjoy the new food.

Here's an article from the UK Telegraph - Stick it to them, the way to deal with fussy eaters.

Cooke and her fellow psychologists have developed a carefully nuanced approach to the problem and carried out a series of studies, in primary schools and families. Every day for two weeks children were asked to take “tiny tastes” of a raw vegetable they did not care for: carrot, celery, tomato, cucumber or pepper. When rewarded with a sticker for each taste, they ate more of the veg than requested, and often ended up with a permanent taste for it. In the past, when Cooke had done similar studies, there would be a hard core of 20 per cent who point blank refused to try the food. But, once stickers were introduced, “we had 100 per cent compliance”.

(The article contains a link to where you can buy the advice.)

As an aside, worries about gagging are a cause (in older children and youth!) of some eating disorders. Luckily, this form is easy to treat with cognitive behaviour therapy, especially if caught early. (But obviously, I am not a doctor, and this is not medical advice.)

  • 1
    Interesting comment about cognitive behaviour therapy since I was going to suggest this question might be a better fit for CogSci.SE... Commented Nov 2, 2013 at 21:11
  • 1
    This hasn't really worked so far as this young man isn't motivated by stickers, but I awarded the bounty because it is a nice answer that probably would work for many with research behind it. Thanks. Commented Nov 8, 2013 at 13:51

Get him involved in the prep of food. Even if it's something as simple as tearing a lettuce apart into shreds with their hands. Maybe try growing some herbs in a pot, and strawberries. Make some healthy pizza's and show them that yucky foods and yummy foods together don't taste bad. Like chicken wrapped in lettuce with a cheese, and broccoli sauce in the middle.

Kids always love being involved, and that how sometimes it gets them interested in the not so appetising foods.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .