Is your kiddo scared of broccoli? Or fearful of anything that is not white? Do you have power struggles at the dinner table? Children can become picky eaters for a variety of reasons, including typical development as they become more independent, sensory sensitivities, anatomy (like tongue-tie), neurological problems, or simply modeling their parents' fussy eating habits. Regardless of the cause, here are a few things you can do...
1. Expose and explore: Give you child opportunities to get their hands dirty and get to know food. It takes at least 10-15 exposures to a new food before a child decides they are ready to eat it. Some initial exposure activities include gardening, bringing your child to the market and letting them help choose what to buy and make, and getting them involved in the process of cooking. All of these activities promote discussion and learning about food and where it comes from before it lands on their plate.
2. Play with food: Letting your children experiment with food textures through play can help them become more adventurous. Some ideas include making stamps out of food (apples, peppers, celery, and fennel are my favorites), making a real Mr. Potato Head, filling a bin of water and having your child clean food and play in water, and using food as game pieces on your favorite board game. Getting to know textures through touch will improve the chances of your little one tacking a new texture on their tongue.
3. Serve meals with a safe food, a kind-of-okay food, and a food they are learning to like: Make sure there is always something comfortable for your child to eat. If your child likes scrambled eggs, maybe they will be okay with vegetables showing up in those eggs. But, the more open you can be about the process (vs disguising or hiding food), the better. We don't want kids to become suspicious or distrusting of their food, or us. The goal is to expand the diet, not to sneak things in.
4. Serve meals family or buffet style: Make one meal for the whole family, put all the food on the table, and sit down to eat all together without distractions. Use this time to model healthy eating. Help serve your child, or have your child serve him/herself if they are old enough. You, the parent, are in control of what and when eating happens, but give your child some control over how much, or the right to say "no thank you." You could have a tasting plate of newer foods available for your child to touch, pick up, smell, or lick. Be sure to give positive feedback like "oh, you are making such good choices!"
5. Use structured eating routines: Create predictable offerings by sitting down to eat and following the same routine each time. For kids kindergarten and younger, this may be every 2.5 hours. Also, limiting grazing between eating times will support appetite and help your child feel the sensations of hunger and fullness. That includes glasses of milk, which are very filling in little bellies.
6. Be patient and calm: The table is not the best place to put pressure on your child, or to have expectations. Try to keep a neutral base, because a child who feels no pressure is more likely to be curious about new foods. Focus on the exposure activities when you can encourage your child to take a little smell or touch the food to their lip. You could also invite your child to help you cook, where there is less pressure to taste versus at the table.
A few other things to keep in mind...
Kids eat differently than adults. While you may present a perfectly balanced meal, kids may choose to eat all of their carbs at one meal, all of their fruits and veggies at another, and their protein later on. This is okay! Remember, you are in charge of providing balanced meals, but your child is in charge of choosing what they eat.
It is very common for parents to get stuck in counter productive feeding practices when dealing with picky eating. This includes things like coercing, threatening, force feeding, overfeeding even when the baby or child shows signs they are full, or continuing to push more food when the child naturally resists. If you find yourself in this cycle, it is time to get some help!
Who would you ask for help?
The first person parents often consult with for initial feeding challenges is the pediatrician. Unfortunately, doctors do not go through adequate training in assessing or treating oral-motor or sensory challenges. So, they really aren't in a great position to give good advice. Instead, it would be more efficient to consult a speech language pathologist or an occupational therapist that specializes in evaluating and treating feeding challenges.
It is time to ask for help if...
Your child is not chewing by 12-15 months old, and moving food from side to side with his tongue.
Your child swallows food whole and doesn't chew at all.
Your child has difficulty transitioning to textured food and is gagging or vomiting frequently.
You are wondering about how you are approaching feeding with your child and want coaching.
So, if you skipped the meat of this post and scrolled all the way down here to the bottom, here are your take aways:
meet the blogger
Austen is a pediatric occupational therapist with experience in schools, early intervention, and private clinic settings. She now runs her own private practice in Portland, OR specializing in movement based learning techniques. This blog's mission is to educate and empower parents and children by sharing insights into the complexities of learning and development.