I have been a health nut for years, so when I had my first child, the responsibility of sustaining another human being's life was somewhat overwhelming. However, I remember feeling confident that with my knowledge about health, my OT background, and my love for cooking, it would all come together. I was going to have the "best-eating-child-known-to-man." (Cue the first time parent over-confidence chuckle.)
Truth be told, I did, initially. My son would eat anything I put in front of him. My sister would laugh when we were at the playground and he would sit down for his snack of salmon and sweet potatoes when all the other kids were eating Oreos. (Okay, I went a little overboard, don't judge me!)
Then my son turned three and refused to eat anything that resembled a vegetable. The more I pushed a certain food, the more he rejected it, and it drove me bonkers. It has been quite the learning process trying to figure out what works and what doesn't in terms of helping my kids enjoy healthy foods while still respecting their need for autonomy.
I'm sure every mother goes through a bit of a roller-coaster of emotions when it comes to food, especially with the first-born.
I'm happy to say I think I've finally found a good balance of letting go of control and encouraging healthy eating habits through fun and education not coercion. I can now enjoy mealtime with my family, instead of dreading our nightly food battles.
For the record, I, by no means, have children who eat every vegetable offered to them. In fact, no matter how many times I have cooked broccoli, I know, deep down, both kids wouldn't care if I never cooked it again.
There are, however, a few things that give me peace regarding food.
- I know (and my kids know) that I am in control of choosing meals, not them
- I know I do my best to provide healthy options
- My kids know that if they don't eat what is offered at mealtime, they will have to wait until the next meal or snack
- I know they will accept new and/or healthy foods on their own terms and this is their own right as an individual who has different preferences than me
I recently took some wonderful continuing education courses in pediatric feeding therapy that taught me SO much and really helped me to connect all the dots with my own kids at home and in my OT practice. During the course of my training, I came to an eye opening conclusion regarding my sons eating situation. I realized I had, unknowingly, created an environment of stress in regards to eating/mealtime for my son. The more I worried about what my son ate, the more he refused the foods I presented.
It wasn't until I decided it was time to finally let go of control and be intentional about creating an atmosphere of joy around the dinner table, that my son started eating well again.
I would LOVE to help you ditch the nightly food battles in exchange for a peaceful mealtime routine with your family too! So that is why I decided to put together every facet of information I have learned over the years in my OT practice about how to overcome picky eating.
Firstly, consider that there is a huge difference between typical picky eating behaviors that develop around the age of 2-3 years old and a legitimate eating disorder, that severely impacts nutritional intake and requires extensive therapy. I am speaking solely about typical picky eating patterns today.
Find peace just in the fact that picky eating is a normal phase that toddlers go through. A nurturing and accepting caregiver is the key to helping them pass through this phase so that it doesn't snow ball into a bigger problem. If what you're currently doing just isn't working, accept the fact that you need to try something new.
So without further ado, here are my top tips to help kids overcome picky eating + enjoy a wider variety of foods
1. Sit down and have a meal together as a family every week night (if possible)
Sitting down with your kids and eating with them as a family as frequently as you can is the most important and often most overlooked contributing factor to overcoming picky eating.
There are hundreds of studies proving the positive correlation between regular family dinners and increased vocabulary, academic performance, and even the increased consumption of fruits, vegetables and micronutrients in children.
Since kids learn best through modeled behavior, they need to watch you eat and enjoy different foods to learn how to do the same. Through modeling, they learn how to chew and eat different food types and textures and how to use utensils.
A meal together implies everyone has the same meal, no short order chef action. Kids eat the same, healthy and balanced meal as their parents. It’s best to have a sense of shared control over mealtime, meaning some nights you cook adult favorites and other nights you ask for a little input from the kids on what they would like. This way, they know, while you’re in charge of what’s for dinner, they can have a say in it too.
2. Make a mealtime schedule + stick to it
Set designated times for meals and snacks and stick to the plan. This helps regulate kids' appetites and sets a peaceful rhythm in the home around meals. Kids like to know what to expect. Be sure to set a time when mealtime is over and the food is gone. This does wonders for kids who take hours on end to eat one serving of peas. Set a timer if you have to (it can be visible to you or both you and the kids) and let them know when the meal will end, the food will also end but don’t hold it over them, just state it as a fact. A good time for a meal is anywhere from 20-30 minutes. There is no reason a meal should last for hours on end (I have been there!). In many social situations (think school, etc) mealtimes are usually around this amount of time.
3. Exposure to a wide variety of foods is key
Exposure to a large variety of food tastes and textures is crucial for future food acceptance, especially within the first year of life. Think of it this way; if your goal is to have your child eat more foods and be okay with trying new ones, how else do you expect them to get there without providing opportunities to try, see and learn about a larger variety of foods?
Every day, try to expose them to a new food type, vegetable or texture.
For textures, think finely chopped, fork mashed, soft table foods, meltable solids (crackers), crispy foods, mixed textures (more than one food texture mixed together), difficulty chewy foods. Remember mixed textures (like lasagna or tacos) are overwhelming (this is why toddlers can find an onion in any food imaginable) Try deconstructing these types of meals.
For flavors, think spicy, sweet, bland, savory, sour, creamy, etc.spices too
To increase acceptance of more foods, you need to consider ALL sensory components of foods presented.
Firstly, think of sight, does the food look presentable? If not, how can you make it visually more appealing? (i.e. cheese a top taco meat, noodles atop of soup) Then think of the touch/tactile component, does the food have a new texture and is your child okay with touching it? If they won't even touch and explore it with their hands, they probably won't put it in their mouth. Next think of the smell, does it smell appetizing? Don't be afraid of the spice! Kids can have fun exploring with their sense of smell just by opening up the spice cabinet. The olfactory system (smell) is strongly linked to gustation (taste). This means if a child enjoys the way something smells, they are more likely to try a bite. Hold their hand in this process by helping them determine their scent preferences. Finally, if your child has accepted all the other food sensory components up to this point, they are now more likely to be ready to taste it!
It can take around 15 trials of a new food for a toddler to accept it. Most parents assume their child doesn’t like a certain food because they rejected it the first or second time and subsequently dont present that food to their child again. Instead, keep presenting the food and wait patiently for when they’re ready to accept it.
Remember, even if your child doesn’t actually try a bite or the food presented, just interacting with it (by sight, touch, or smell) is still increasing their exposure to the food type. Maybe a few more exposures and they might take a bite!
4. Create an atmosphere of joy around the table
Be deliberate about making mealtime a fun and positive experience. Mealtime can be stressful and overwhelming for some children, especially when they spy something completely new in their plate.
Feeling overwhelmed or stressed when you sit down to eat? Take a deep breath and smile! Then just enjoy your kids and your meal. Take this time to connect and talk to your family. It will help everyone feel more relaxed and calm and maybe mealtime will even be something to look forward to with your child! Remember to turn off all electronics so you can make eye contact with each other and focus on conversation as a family.
Here are some fun and playful mealtime icebreakers!
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- Food art - I love these Fred Mr. Food Face silly face plates for creating fun food art that kids find so silly!
- Painting with purees- Grab some baby foods and let kids paint with them on any surface (high chair topper, paper plates, etc) This will increase their tolerance to mushy textures and they might try a few bites and expose themselves to new vegetable tastes.
- Talking about the colors on the plate- "It's important to eat ALL the colors of the rainbow to make our bodies strong. What colors of the rainbow are on our plate today?"
- Asking on a scale of 0-10 how everyone’s day was (take turns)
- Food math + counting- “How many carrots are on your plate?” “Who has the most peas?”
- Using a dip tray- Dips are great for encouraging vegetable consumption and they are a fun, modeled behavior you can do as a family. (Dip crackers or apple slices into peanut/almond butter, dip carrots into ranch, celery into hummus)
- Use training chop sticks for kids- I love these!
- Use bento forks for trying new foods- These animal bento forks are great!
- Singing a silly song or saying a short blessing together as a family- This is simple and easy fun, and kids really enjoy taking part. Here is the one my son says at school and we also uses at home, it's so cute! "Thank you for the world so sweet, thank you for the food we eat, thank you for the birds that sing, thank you Lord for EVERYTHING!"
- My personal favorite is truthfully teaching them about the food that they are eating. Tell them where it comes from and what it does for the body (I.e. “Carrots make your eyes super strong, Salmon comes from a fish in the sea and it makes your brain grow, etc”)
5. Describe whats on the plate (texture + color + size + flavor + size + temperature)
Food descriptors can work wonders for kids who have difficulty trying new foods. Instead of thinking “She doesn’t like sweet potatoes,” think of how she may just be nervous to try it because she doesn’t know what to expect.
Children like things to be predictable and often the unknown becomes scary and can cause anxiety. Maybe the last time she tried sweet potatoes, it surprised her how smushy they were. Instead of “These are so yummy!” Be more descriptive. You can say “these sweet potatoes are orange like the sun! Did you know you don’t have to chew them very much because they are so mushy? Watch how I eat them. Oh, I can taste the butter too!” Or instead of “I love carrots!” say, “This carrot is so crunchy! Watch how I make a super loud crunchy sound when I eat it!”
6. Get your kids involved in cooking + meal prep
Being involved in the cooking and food preparation helps to prepare them for the meal to come and eliminate the element of surprise. They can be the ones to help you chop and mix the bananas into their yogurt instead of being surprised at the chunk in their mouth when they were expecting a smooth texture.
Cooking with kids can be challenging, but it also can be a lot of fun. They feel more in control which is so important (remember the idea of shared control). They are also more willing to try new things if they helped assemble it. My son tried hemp hearts (aka sprinkles) on his peanut butter toast because he helped me sprinkle them on.
Letting them get their hands on the foods prior to eating them will increase their chances of putting it in their mouth also because now the have experienced the texture of that food.
So take a deep breath, embrace the mishaps and the mess and try to break everything down into very simple steps.
7. Offer 3 - 4 choices + always include 1 safe choice
Anywhere from 3-4 choices is the perfect combination of allowing room for exploration of new foods and textures and allowing more choices to help balance the meal, regardless of the choices your child chooses to eat.
Having a safe choice or preferred food on the plate can help to alleviate tension over new foods and help your child feel safe and excited about mealtime. Think of it as “bait on the plate.” If you made a vegetable soup, maybe you sprinkle a few favorite noodles on top so visually that’s the first thing they see.
Another type of food bait, especially for vegetables, can be spreads, sauces or dips. I personally don’t like eating a dry sweet potato so I don’t expect my kids to either. Veggies roasted in olive oil, butter atop of potatoes, cream cheese atop of cucumbers or a side of dipping ranch with carrots are perfect examples.
8. Remove the words "eat it" or "try some" from your dinner vocabulary
Children instricntively resist persuasion and reducing coersion will help reduce the child's anxiety.
I’m sure you can recall an event where you tried to make your child eat something and the more you tried to “pitch” or “sell” the food, the more they resisted. My son refused to eat pizza for about three years because of this and then finally decided on his own terms to try it.
So offer the foods, enjoy your plate, and move on, mama!
9. Have a safe bowl handy
Make trying new foods safe and give them an out if they don’t like it. Children are more willing to try something if they know they can spit it out. Using a bowl next to their plate where they can choose to remove items they tried and don't like is helpful because it gives them some control over the situation.
Here is how to use one. Simply keep a small plate or bowl next to your child's dinner plate. Encourage by example when trying a new food and if they touch it and don't like how it feels or taste it and don't like how it tastes, they can spit it out or place it on the safe bowl.
10. Allow total autonomy (but offer help if they need or request)
Being an occupations therapist, my goal is to teach children skills for successful independence, so I have my own personal qualms with spoon feeding. Again, we are back at the control issue. Children (and all humans really) like to feel in control, especially when it comes to things that are coming directly into their mouths.
There are, however, certain types of foods that require a little more help. Or sometimes your toddler or baby simply wants or requests help, and that’s okay too. But for the most part, allow your child to feed themselves so they can feel in control of the eating experience.
So, let yourself off the hook for this one (except the mess unfortunately) and let your child explore textures and food tastes on their own. They might even develop some new utensil skills along the way.
11. Accept where your child is in this journey to food acceptance + move on
This is by far the hardest for most parents, myself included. Do your best to accept your child for where they are along their journey to enjoying a wider variety of foods. You cannot force them to be anywhere along this journey that they are not. Fortunately though, you can be the single most important contributing factor to helping them move forward on this journey of food enjoyment and exploration.
So that's it mamas! My hope for you is that using these silly simple steps, you can start enjoying mealtime with your children again (and hopefully your kids will learn to eat new and healthy foods along the way too!)
AEIOU Systemic Approach to Pediatric Feeding. Ninya Johanson