By Shari Karmen, Occupational Therapist and TLC Therapeutic Services Manager
Oh the picky eater! Some kids are super picky, some are “normally” picky, and some are selective or problem feeders.
Normal picky eating typically begins between 18 months and three years and is usually over by six years old. These kids will have food jags where they want to eat PBJ for lunch every day. They are looking for control and typically thrive well despite their picky eating habits. Some kids are more picky and will want PBJ for lunch every day, and then will switch it to grilled cheese, but with an occasional PBJ thrown in. Selective or problem feeders will want a PBJ, but it must have a certain type of bread, peanut butter, and jelly. Then they will decide they no longer want it. The difference is they will not add a new food to the repertoire, but instead will limit what foods they will eat even further.
Picky eating can be stressful for a parent who worries about their child's nutritional intake and teaching them to eat and try a varied diet. There is help for the parents of picky eaters, though. Below are a few ideas you can try at home.
Ten Ideas for Feeding Your Picky Eater:
1. Involve your child in meal planning and preparation. This includes making a shopping list together, going to the store together, wearing an apron to help prepare food, and then letting your child help in preparing the food. The child's task can be as simple as tearing lettuce for a salad, as long as they are involved with the process.
2. Use fun props and place settings for mealtimes such as colorful cups, fun placemats, and curly straws. Give you child choices and control in what utensils they use (the color of their plate, etc.)
3. Keep a mealtime routine. Have meals at the same time every day. Create routines within the meal such as washing hands, setting the table, and then clearing food away after the meal.
4. Eat with your child. Mealtimes are social so talk at the table, but not about what your child is not eating! For tips on engaging your child in conversation, see some of our previous posts on speech and language activities for kids.
5. Use the timer on your phone so that your child knows how long the meal will last. Have an alert go off 2-5 minutes before the 20-30 minutes dedicated to mealtime is up. This helps everyone know that there is an ending to the meal.
6. Watch mealtime language. Don’t bombard your child with questions or constantly say “take a bite”. Talk about the color of the food, how you can hear him crunching, and the texture of the food. Read some of our tips on using responsive language with kids.
7. Focus on the meal rather than the TV, smart phones, and other electronic devices. You can have music playing, but keep the TV and toys away from mealtime.
8. Reward your child for positive behavior outside of the mealtime with non-food items. Feeding can be very emotional, and linking food with a system of rewards can have a negative outcome for some kids.
9. Only put a small amount of food on your child’s plate. Sometimes seeing three servings of three different foods can be overwhelming.
10. Encourage your child to try new foods. If he can tolerate the food on his plate without eating it, that’s success. Slowly up the ante by having your child touch, lick, and/or kiss the food. Eventually he will take a bite. Remember it takes 20 tries before a child likes a food.
If you feel like there are other factors impeding your child’s ability to eat, seek help from an Occupational Therapist or Registered Dietitian. An Occupational Therapist addresses motor skills, sensory components of eating, how to use your muscles in your mouth from feeding, and much more to help children move away from the habits of selective or problem feeding.