Picky eating is an inescapable milestone that every parent and child experiences. All children move through developmental feeding milestones and these can be equally frustrating for both the parents and the child. Developmental milestones are body’s steps towards healthy eating, just like sitting up, crawling and standing are steps to walking. Picky eating can be fleeting or a long term issue for your child depending on how you respond and how you support them through these milestones.
Need some ideas? Save your sanity and your mealtimes by trying some or all of the strategies i’ve listed for you below!
Be An Investigator.
Feeding refusals are not just bad behavior choices, for most children, refusals are a symptom of an underlying medical problem or genuine sensitivity to foods. Talk to your pediatrician to discuss any underlying medical reasons for your child’s food refusals. Are there any allergies in the family? Is there any muscle weakness? Are there any GI issues for instance? Did your child experience reflux? Are they between the age of 18-36 months?
It Takes A Village
You never have to navigate through parenthood alone. There are always people within your reach who are experts in all different areas and they are on standby waiting to help you. Asking for help shows strength. Consult with other health care professionals: a speech language pathologist for feeding therapy, an allergist, a nutritionist, a gastroenterologist, a physical therapist for positioning, an occupational therapist for sensory components that may be affecting your tiny eater. Treating individuals with feeding difficulties requires a team approach. If you need help, start building your team!
What Type of Eater Do You Have?
Dig deep, Mamas. Find the root of why your child is refusing foods in order to find the specific answer needed to help your individual child. Is it oral motor weakness, sensory-related, behavioral or a combination of two or more? Is it oral defensiveness? Texture aversions? Allergies? Teething?
Keep Calm & Eat On
Be calm and put on your poker face. Children are the best experts on reading their parents. They can sense your disappointment, frustration, excitement, impatience, anger and more, so monitor what emotions you are displaying and strive to keep it light. Work at maintaining a positive experience with food and mealtimes by remaining calm, relaxed, patient, and showing them that you care.
Let’s Be Honest
Take inventory of what you eat. Yes, that’s right! If you hate eating salad and never eat mushrooms, your kids might not either. Some food preferences can be environmental. They are learning to eat how you eat. What are you showing them? What did your parents show you?
Often when you have a child struggling greatly with eating, there may also be sensory issues having an impact throughout the body. These sensory needs should be addressed before your child can calm and de-sensitize any sensory defensiveness in their mouth. If your child has a hard time sitting still, calming, is clumsy or carries a tense posture these can be signs to see an occupational therapist. Child will usually be more open to exploring new foods once their bodies are regulated.
Too many distractions, noises, smells, lights, sounds can sabotage your mealtimes. Keep your environment positive, calm and relaxed. Change it up! Dim the lights, shut off the television or iPad, remove the toys and start a new distraction free mealtime.
I have all my clients keep a detailed food diary that I provide to them in Happy Eating Club and during individual consultation sessions. It’s important to document everything the child eats and drinks for at least 3-5 days. The type, the quantities AND every detail about how the child interacted. Liquid intake too!
Get your child involved in the kitchen as a kitchen helper. If they have a hand in preparing the food (even if it’s a small task like stirring or moving food from the refrigerator to the counter), they will be more open to those mealtimes.
Give your child permission to interact with food without any pressure to actually eat it. Let them learn about it in a fun, comfortable, stress-free positive way. Talk about each foods, using all 5 senses to describe it. Ask your child to touch it, smell it or kiss it. If they don’t want to, don’t stress about it. Find a path of less resistance. Ask your child to move the off their plate, by having them use their sense of touch it instead (win!). You can learn about 7 key sensory steps in my virtual program for picky eaters.
Make A Mess
Children first need to become comfortable with food on their hands before they will ever put it inside their mouths. This is a gradual process. Introduce new foods with exploration and fun. Place food in front of your child and let them explore it with their hands – they can smash it, squeeze it, swirl it, draw pictures in it on the table, etc.. Getting involved and demonstrating what you want them to do allows them to feel safe. It’s important to get involved in the play. Give your child permission to get messy and enjoy watching as your child begins eating or tasting new foods.
Don’t Be A Serial Wiper
Eating is a sensory experience. We experience food with every sense. When you do not allow your child to get dirty at mealtimes, they are missing an opportunity to use every sense to experience and get comfortable with a new food. This means that you must step away from the wipes – at least until after dinner is over!
The “Not Yet” Bowl
If your child doesn’t want to try something, praise them for what they actually did do. Did they look, touch and smell? Praise them. Let them know they can move the food in the “no” bowl to be done with it. The goal to removing picky eating is exposure and positive experience to correlate to the food.
Try And Try Again
If the child doesn’t like a food after the first presentation, keep trying. It may take 8-10 exposures or more before the child will be willing to try it. For some children, they may need 20 trials! Every child is different. Working directly with a specialist helps you to create a customized plan for your child.
Start With Small Changes
As you begin, start making very small changes to their preferred food choices. Do they like cucumbers? Try presenting them differently. Do they like crackers? Try putting a TINY bit of hummus, jam, puree, nut butter or a nut butter alternative onto it. Introduce a different brand of the same food, or a different shape. Change is hard! Go slow and keep it simple!
Build A Bridge
Use what they already like as a bridge to transition to new foods. If the child likes applesauce, put a little applesauce on a cracker. They might just try that too, or at least lick it off.
Give them control where possible by letting them make choices. Let them choose which spoon they want, if they want juice or water, if they’d like to kiss the apple 3 times or lick it once, etc. Two choices are usually best – enough for them to have options without be overwhelmed by them.
Try new foods at snack time instead of mealtimes, so there is less pressure to get mealtime calories in.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
Model by eating the foods yourself (kids often learn through imitating). You can also model on a puppet or stuffed animal.
You Are AWESOME
Remember to praise, praise, praise. Use reinforcements that cater to the child’s interests. Get excited about every milestone, no matter how small it may seem.
Embrace The Winding Road
It may not be a straight path. It may have twists and turns, but you will get there.
My Three NEVERS (never-ever!)
- Never force a child to mouth, bite, chew, lick, or taste anything.
- Never send a child to bed hungry.
- Never punish your child for not eating.
Each of these strategies only work against you. Not for you.
You love your child. As a parent, I understand that love. I understand that some days you are tired, exhausted from the mealtime battle, you are worried and frustrated. Try to understand that conquering feeding difficulties can be a long process. It’s a novel – not a haiku! Remember there is no “cookie cutter way” to do feeding therapy, because every child is unique. If you try all of these strategies and still need help, you are in luck, because expert support is only an email or phone call away!
Overwhelmed during mealtimes? Frustrated? If you are ready to join Happy Eating Club this month or if you know someone who does, click here and use code “chewchew40” for HUGE savings. Join us for live, expert support that helps you build happier, healthier mealtimes. There is no time like the present to redefine your family’s mealtime.