Feeding your picky eater at any time can be hard enough. Add the stress of a pandemic and few places to go, and your kiddo is back to eating the same frozen chicken nuggets and French fries every day because, let’s be honest, it’s just easier than the drama that comes with getting him to try something new. As a pediatric feeding therapist, I hear these complaints from parents often, especially now, when we are all home together all day.
Not to worry! There are many simple ways to change it up and make mealtimes fun for the whole family. And the best part? The only materials required are an open mind and the food itself.
For infants and toddlers, mealtime should equal playtime. Playing with food is part of the normal developmental process of learning to eat it. Encourage your toddlers to finger paint with a new flavor of applesauce or build towers out of cheese cubes. They might even lick their fingers after, and you didn’t even have to tell them to “take a bite!” Research shows that children need to engage all of their senses and may require up to 15 exposures of a new food before being willing to taste it.
For your school-aged kids who have a limited diet, have them come up with funny names or characters for new fruits and vegetables. Draw a picture, write a sentence or create a comic strip about “Melon Man” or “Captain Cucumber” and you’ve got a writing activity AND food expansion game! Help them feel the foods to discover their traits without any pressure to eat them. Positive experiences and child-directed exploration are the first steps towards taking a bite.
Plan a Taste Test
For older children who put up a fight with any changes to their preferred foods, get the whole family involved in some fun food-related activities. Your kiddo who only eats the French fries? Have him help you plan a family taste test complete with a rating system. Together, pick 5 flavors or brands of fries (throw in some veggie fries – sweet potato or carrot fries anyone?!), come up with the ranking system, and set out small bite-sized pieces in a blind taste test.
Encourage everyone to use all of their senses to explore the foods – how do they look, feel or smell different? Have everyone rank their top 3, and ta-da! You now have 3 new options for dinner sides. (Pro tip: Try to keep your language neutral. Instead of saying, “the first one is gross,” or “I don’t like that one,” model talking about the sensory characteristics of the foods. Instead, go with “this is a little too spicy,” or “this is too mushy for me.”)
Chef for a Day
Getting your picky eater involved in all things food-related is a crucial step in expanding his acceptance. Engage him in food shopping and preparation – even being in the kitchen and handing you the ingredients is a great start! Have your picky eater think about foods that the whole family would like, make a list of ingredients, and help with the cooking process. For an added learning activity, help your kids make menus. You can adapt this for different ages and levels – targeting everything from writing sentences to working on descriptive language. Make a chef’s hat out of card stock for added engagement!
Read Next | Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters
Remember your excitement when you first ate at a restaurant where the meal was served “family style”? The thrill you felt when you realized you could take as much mashed potatoes as you wished? Now, imagine the delight your children will feel when you transition your dinners to being served family style. Put 3-4 foods out in different platters, and help your children serve themselves. Not only does this reduce power struggles around eating, but it allows children to try new foods at their speed when they see the rest of the family enjoying them.
Make sure there is at least one familiar food presented that your picky eater accepts and start making changes very gradually. For example, use cookie cutters to make new fun shapes of the same chicken nuggets. Add some sauces on the side so your children can start experimenting with dipping – another fun way to introduce new tastes! Engage your children in conversations about the best part of their days or pick a new topic to learn about during dinner (outside of food) while trusting that your children will eat the amount they need.
Remember, most importantly, to take a deep breath and avoid persuading your kids to “just try it.” Your children will pick up on your relaxed demeanor around meals. Of course, if extreme picky eating continues to negatively impact mealtimes, it may be time to consult an expert.
Wasink, B., Just, D.R., Payne, C.R., & Klinger, M. (2012). Attractive names sustain increased vegetable intake in schools. Preventative Medicine, 55 (4), 330-332.
Some of the eating advice in this blog post is based on Ellyn Satter’s principles and guidelines and Kay Toomey’s SOS Approach to Feeding. For more about Satter’s work, see http://ellynsatterinstitute.org and for Toomey’s work, see http://sosapproachtofeeding.com
Kate Bither, MS, CCC-SLP, CLC is a speech-language pathologist, feeding therapist and Certified Lactation Counselor who has been working with kids for over a decade. She currently works in a large children’s hospital in NYC and owns EatTalkLearn, a private practice that provides home-based and virtual speech, language and feeding therapy for infants and children. She is passionate about helping caregivers make feeding and communication fun and stress-free while guiding children to reach their full potentials. Visit her website at www.eattalklearnslp.com