Children can be tougher critics than Michelin inspectors at meal time, making it difficult to figure out how to get necessary nutrients off their plates and into their tummies. Chronic pickiness becomes even more concerning when worrying whether your child is a typical picky eater or has a selective eating disorder. Some signs to look for to help determine if your child is more than just a picky eater include:
A restricted range of foods willingly eaten (usually less than 20).
Crying when presented with new foods as opposed to simply pushing the food around or away.
Refusing groups of foods with similar characteristics (no soft textures, no vegetables, etc.)
Never eating with the family and/or always having a separate meal.
If you suspect your child’s picky eating goes beyond what’s healthy for a varied, balanced diet, and your child isn’t showing signs of growing out of their pickiness, a pediatric therapist can help. Therapists, like those at TLC, can help children learn to tolerate new textures and tastes in food, help decrease a child’s anxiety at mealtime, address physical hindrances to eating safely, and more.
Wherever your child lands on the spectrum of pickiness, here are a few tips to help your child better enjoy mealtime, embark on new food adventures, and ingest more nutrition from a wider variety of foods:
Keep meals and snacks on a schedule. Kids will be more likely to try new foods if they’re hungry and know the mealtime routine. Set daily times for three meals and two snacks, so your child will learn to anticipate when food is coming, and how long they’ll have to wait if they choose not to eat what’s on their plate.
Let children feed themselves. Children like the independence of being able to feed themselves, and can better self-monitor their portion sizes and when they’re full. If there are multiple offerings on the plate, the child can also have the power to choose what items on the plate they wish to eat.
Wait. This one may be the hardest on the list. If you push the child to eat, they’ll resist. If you make a show trying to encourage the child to eat, they’ll not eat to keep the show going. If you applaud and reward when they do eat, they’ll learn that delaying eating merits praise. So the best thing to do? Set the food down, and wait for the child to show interest (or not) on their own.
Don’t allow old standbys to be an equal option to new foods. When plating, add a mix of new and favorite foods (while keeping a balance of protein, veggies, fruits, and high-fiber starches in each meal), while keeping the serving size of an old favorite small enough that won’t be enough to fill up on and ignore the new food. The more new foods you introduce to your child early on, the less picky they’re likely to be when they’re older, so keep those new foods in rotation.
Put dinosaurs on the table. Or a book. Or a small toy. My daughter likes to alternate between eating her food and dancing rubber dinosaurs across the table. This helps keep her happy when she wants to take a break from eating. She’s also been known to use the dinosaur’s tail to stab the food like a fork.
Let kids be involved. Whether it’s standing at the counter with you and “cutting” up a banana while you cook or letting them choose from two options what they’d like to eat, having a child involved in the meal selection and preparation process increases their investment in mealtime, and thus their engagement.
Tell a story before or along with the meal about the meal. Children are wired for stories, and incorporating the meal prep process, the eating process, and how the food nourishes the body into a story can help get kids excited to eat their food.
Make meal time play time. Let a child touch, poke, smash, and explore new foods. Helping a child get used to new foods is the first step towards taking a bite. Encourage play by letting children roll peas across a table, build with carrot sticks, mold rice into shapes, make faces on their plate, and more. Help your child associate meals with joy.
Let your child determine when they’re finished. Even if you don’t think your child has had enough to eat, respect their communication of “finished,” whether its verbal, a head shake, sign language, or another signal.
Feed each other. Allow your child to give you a bite of food (or three), then see if they’ll let you give them one.
Sneak the vegetables in from time to time. My toddler never turns down a banana zucchini muffin.
Start early, be patient, and model healthy eating habits. It takes repeated exposure to some new foods for a child to begin to tolerate, and even like, that food. Present new foods often as soon as your child is eating solids, be patient if they refuse to try the food and don’t force them to eat it, and model eating it for them (with gusto).
It may try your patience, but for the typical picky eater, repeated exposure and working to make meal time enjoyable will pay off as a child grows and their palate expands. If your child continues to insist on an extremely limited diet, demonstrates continued extreme resistance toward new foods, isn’t getting the proper nutrition or is failing to gain adequate weight, it may be time to get some help. Talk to your pediatrician and schedule a consultation with a pediatric therapist.
Here’s wishing many licked-clean plates in your child’s future!