As a new parent of an almost toddler, this old piece of wisdom has been coming to mind a lot lately.

Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, and expecting different results.

Yet, I’ve made a giant post-it note-to-self: ignore old wisdoms, especially when it comes to feeding Isla.

Turns out, repeatedly giving kids the same food over, and over, and over—especially a food they tend to fling across the room—is not insane at all.

It’s brilliant.

Isla, mid fling

And, by brilliant, I mean it works.

Did I figure this out on my own? Not at all. (You mistake me for a person with patience.)

By dumb luck I was recently assigned to read a research study which reported that a child’s willingness to eat a new food increases after they’ve been exposed to it about five to 10 times.

Yes, 10. (As in seven ain’t enough, eight ain’t enough, and neither is nine.)

If that sounds like a lot, brace yourself: some feeding experts cite evidence showing it can take 15 to 20 exposures to a new food to get the ‘Mikey likes it!‘ response I’ve been hoping for. (But I’m not even going there just yet because, let’s face it, by ‘exposures’ I mean episodes of me standing patiently nearby as Isla cheerfully flings pieces of food across the kitchen.)

If you think that’s way too many times to be pulling the same food stunt with your kids, you’re not the only one. The same study showed that most of us throw in the ‘just try it’ towel much faster, serving up a new food an average of 2.5 times before we decide our little mini me just doesn’t like it.

Even I, holding tight to the idea that I’m willing to do anything when it comes to winning the you’re-gonna-eat-veggies-war, admit this seemingly low number is sadly accurate. Spending time on my hands and knees on the floor, wiping up all the tasty morsels I’ve spent time cooking and cutting into perfectly appropriate infant-sized pieces gets old—insanely old—after about the second or third time.

It can also be a little heartbreaking. I’m thinking of the incident that occurred the other day after I found the most beautiful and delicious heirloom tomatoes at our local farmer’s market. I came home, washed and sliced them, delicately scraping all the seeds and juice out of their insides, and then dicing the remains into tiny little squares, perfect for Isla’s munchkin fingers to pick up.

Seconds after I laid those sweet, red squares of summer out in front of her, she tossed them highchair-overboard.

Picking up their wet little bodies off of the cold kitchen tiles was a sad experience I wasn’t too anxious to repeat.

Yet, I plan on doing just that.

(I know what you’re thinking…poor, sad little woman. Crying over tomatoes and slaving to a wee 11 month old.)

No, no. You’ve got it all wrong. According to feeding experts, Isla isn’t a cruel little tyrant nor is she getting a kick out of seeing me crawl around picking up over-priced produce off the floor (okay, maybe she is just a little bit.)

Isla’s instinct to chuck pieces of unfamiliar foods across my kitchen is a perfectly normal type of food neophobia, a fancy term for fear of new foods. (Well, the throwing isn’t the normal part, the refusing to eat is.) A certain degree of food neophobia is a perfectly natural, even intelligent and protective, behavior for a young little omnivore.

You see, we omnivores need to eat a wide variety of foods in order to get all the necessary vitamins, minerals and other nutrients our bodies need in order to function properly.

Isla, still a little unsure about all this variety

Yet, eating all kinds of different foods can be dicey business because before you eat anything new you’ve got to make sure it’s safe to eat.

It’s a perplexing little problem we omnivores have, needing to eat a wide variety of foods but also needing to exercise caution and eat only what’s familiar and safe. You may have already heard of this little food catch-22, which is sometimes called the omnivore’s paradox or omnivore’s dilemma.

Did you lose me yet? Hopefully not but who cares because here’s the point: if your kid refuses to eat a good-for-you food once, twice, even five times, don’t give up! This goes especially so when it comes to vegetables, the absolute healthiest foods they will ever eat.

When feeding Isla, I remember that my little omnivore is going through a learning process so I’ve vowed to start exercising some mealtime “PP.

Patient Persistence

Since I hate cleaning the kitchen floor (or anywhere, for that matter) I’ve discovered a few tricks that make trying new foods easier on Isla, such as… 

  • Serving ’em at the start. I put small pieces of one new food—broccoli, tomato, whatever I’m angling for—in front of Isla when I first put her in her highchair, usually while I’m still fixing the rest of her main meal. She’s most energetic, curious and upbeat at this point. (One warning! Don’t do this with a uber-hungry baby since new foods can be more frustrating than fun when a hearty appetite is involved.)
  • Being okay with play. Experts explain that part of learning about new foods involves experimenting with textures, smells and tastes. Isla, for instance, took to squeezing all the liquid out of little pieces of butternut squash and watermelon, for example, way before she ever tried putting them in her mouth. Juicy, messy drippings everywhere but I learned to see it as her and her veggies getting acquainted.
  • Chowing down nearby. One of the most important ways tiny little omnivores learn what’s safe to eat is by watching the big omnivores around them. Smarty pants, right? (Just think of yourself as your little one’s royal food tester.) I use this to my advantage by putting whatever new food I expect Isla to eat on my own plate first, making sure she sees me eating and enjoying it. Eventually, I move a few pieces from my own dish to ‘share’ with her, as if it’s a special treat.
  • Letting big kids rule. Research shows food modeling (described above) is strongest between mothers and children, but older children (such as siblings) were also found to have an effective influence. (Older kids have a more powerful effect that younger ones, by the way.) So if you’re lucky enough to have a older veggie loving ‘tween or teen around at mealtime, make sure they’re within eyeshot of baby.

Of course, these tips make new foods easier on momma, too, since they’ve cut down on the number of ‘exposures’ it takes for Isla to get to eating… tomatoes, for instance, when down by the third try. (In fact, we have yet to ever have to hit the # 10 I mentioned earlier.)

At 11 months, Isla’s got butternut squash, buckwheat, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, spinach, green beans, ground beef, eggs, quinoa, blueberries, plums, watermelon, honeydew, vegetable frittatas, and a whole host of other healthy foods under her belt.

Okay, I’m bragging now… but we’re in training—and for good reason.

Food neophobia is shown to be highest in two to five year olds, so I’m aiming to make sure that a whole bunch of good-for-you foods are waaay familiar by the time we get to that point to avoid any future food ‘ish.

Isla helping me pick out the perfect tomato

For now, I’d never talk dirty about Isla by calling her a ‘picky eater.’ It may take her a few tries but she’s doing food fine.

And here’s to hoping I never have to eat those words! Stay tuned!