By Dr. Joyce Tu, Ed.D., BCBA-D


Caring for a loved one with developmental disabilities can pose unique challenges, which are not always adequately addressed by conventional methods. We have covered how to tackle toilet troubles and chronic sleeping issues. Below, Dr. Joyce Tu, Ed.D, BCBA-D, shares one program to help parents and caretakers introduce new foods to picky eaters.  From a behavior analyst’s perspective, eating may be addressed using the following framework:

  • The Premack principle (the principle that more likely behaviors, can be used to reinforce less likely behaviors);
  • Shaping (reinforcement of behavior resembling a target behavior);
  • Fading (gradually reducing prompts or reinforcers); and
  • Positive reinforcement (presenting a reinforcer to make behavior more likely).

If this seems too technical, don’t be discouraged; the program itself is fairly simple!  Your child (or other “picky eater”) will be introduced to various types/shapes/sizes of food throughout the day by using these principles, and can gradually expand her daily menu.


First, you’ll need to identify a reinforcer—a favorite food that your “picky eater” already likes.  Then, choose a new food which you would like to introduce to her diet.  Next, for each bite of new food that your “picky eater” eats, immediately give her a bite of her favorite food.  This is “positive reinforcement.”  (See, it isn’t so hard!)

Alternatively, you can start more slowly and present a bite of her favorite food when she first touches the new food.  Then, when your “picky eater” gradually brings the new food closer and closer to her mouth, give her a bite of her favorite food.  This is called “shaping.”

Gradually increase the ratio of new food to a favorite food, to 2:1.  In other words, when your “picky eater” eats two bites of new food, present one piece of her favorite food.  Later, increase the ratio to  3:1, then 4:1. By changing the ratio this way, you are using a “fading” procedure.  When the ratio of new food vs. favorite food has increased to 5:1, you can then introduce a second new food.

When introducing the second new food, have your “picky eater” take a bite of the second new food, then a bite of first new food, then five bites of her favorite food. The ratio of the second new food, to the first new food, to a favorite food should be gradually increased to 2:5:1 (i.e. two bites of the second new food, five bites of the first new food, and one bite of a favorite food).

Gradually increase this ratio of the second new food vs. the first new food, vs a favorite food, to 3:5:1, 4:5:1, etc.—until your “picky eater” begins eating both new foods without your help. Using the same procedure, you can then introduce other new foods.


Disclaimer: This article is for general information only, and is not intended (nor should it be relied upon) as health care or other advice regarding your specific circumstances. Individual circumstances and outcomes vary, and the statements or recommendations in this article may not apply to you. Please contact your health care provider regarding any specific issue or problem.  The opinions expressed in this post are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of CBS.
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