“Picky” eaters are among us, many parents have at least one child that they struggle with at meal times. “Picky” eaters rarely try new foods, sticking only to a few tried and true favorites. What’s a parent to do? Do you just serve grilled cheese at every meal and beg for a bite of broccoli? How do you get them to even consider trying a new food? It is challenging, to say the least!
We know that kids like consistency, routine, and things that are familiar. The unknown can be overwhelming and scary for them. It takes time for a new idea to seem comfortable enough for them to proceed. The same holds true for new foods. As adults, we take the myriad of foods we eat for granted. For some kids, a food that is a different color, texture, or shape is very foreign, unknown, and thus overwhelming. If it is overwhelming and scary, they probably aren’t going to eat it.
Keeping that in mind, it makes perfect sense that they need to get more comfortable with it, right? In order for a kid to get more comfortable with foods they are refusing, they need to interact with it and feel no pressure to eat it. One of the best ways to achieve that is to play with food. Radical, I know, and it goes against good manners and the sort. But stay with me here, remember they need to get comfortable with food!
Generally, the first step is to get your child to touch the food. Start there and be creative. You might say something like, “Let’s see if we can stand your little pieces of broccoli up like a forrest.” Or, if they already touched it, maybe you can get them to smell it, which will help them get it closer their face (that’s a big step for a “picky eater”). In this case, you could say, “Wow, my broccoli looks like a bouquet of flowers. I am going to smell my flowers. Can you smell yours?” From there you can move onto licking, tasting a small bite, and taking a normal bite. Also, give them permission to discreetly spit it out. I know, it’s gross and not very polite, but they may be more likely to try a bite if they know they can get rid of it if it tastes bad to them. I haven’t had any kid I work with get inappropriate with spitting it out. I don’t make a big deal about it and they move past it as they get more comfortable with the food.
Here are three ways you can set up “play-time” with food:
1. Spend 2-3 minutes at the end of a meal “playing” with any refused foods. If your child has refused a food(s) at a meal, then before you clean up and move on, see if you can get them to interact with the food at all. I would avoid this if it is chaotic or your child has had enough of sitting for a meal. Aim for keeping this short and sweet.
2. Cook and prepare meals with your kids. Get your kid in the kitchen and help cook, without much help from you, they will be touching and smelling the food. You can still try some play as you are going, and I would gently encourage sampling of whatever is safe to eat while it is being prepared.
3. Set aside time (outside of a meal) to play with non-preferred foods. In between meals, set up some food exploration time at a table. It would be great if this was at a table they don’t normally eat at, so the association isn’t with eating. Have some utensils for cutting and getting creative. Most importantly, make sure you have set up food for yourself to play with, too. Ideally, they have a plate and you have a plate. You model and they imitate.
A couple of other important notes:
- Don’t force or try to shove food in, it is counterproductive and you may lose their trust.
- Just model for the child and encourage them to imitate whatever play you’re initiating. Don’t hold the food up for them to smell, let them do it. Hopefully, you will be following their lead. It is important they have control of the food they are interacting with.
- Keep it fun. If your kid gets upset or distracted, then try to end the play quickly and as positive as possible.
- Be patient. Don’t expect miracles after 10 minutes, an hour, or even a week. I have been there with my own kid and this may be the hardest part. It takes time, patience, and consistency.
- Keep the pressure off. The goal isn’t eating when you are exploring new foods, just play, and if they happen to eat it — bonus!
- These strategies aren’t just for new foods. I know quite well that picky eaters will often stop eating something they previously loved, never to touch it again. You can certainly employ these tactics for those lost foods, too.
What do you think, can you let your “picky” eater play with their food?
If you are looking for more help with “picky” eaters, I have a ton of it over at Your Kid’s Table. Check out my Basic Strategies to Improve Eating, Cooking with Your Kid: Pumpkin Waffles, and Picky Eater Tip: Put it on a Stick, just to name a few.
Alisha Grogan, MOTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist that specializes in feeding difficulties and sensory integration in the Pittsburgh area. Also, the mom of two wonderful boys under three and blogger at Your Kid’s Table, which combines all her feeding and sensory knowledge as a mom and OT. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.