“Picky” eaters areÂ amongÂ us, many parents have at least one child that they struggle with at meal times. Â “Picky” eaters rarely try new foods, sticking only to a few tried and true favorites. Â What’s a parent to do? Â Do you just serve grilled cheese at every meal and beg for a bite of broccoli? Â How do you get them to even consider trying a new food? Â It is challenging, to say the least!
We know that kids like consistency, routine, and things that are familiar. Â The unknown can be overwhelming and scary for them. Â It takes time for a new idea to seem comfortable enough for them to proceed. Â The same holds true for new foods. As adults, we take the myriad of foods we eat for granted. Â For some kids, a food that is a different color, texture, or shape is very foreign, unknown, and thus overwhelming. Â 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? Â 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. Â One of the best ways to achieve that is to play with food. Â Radical, I know, and it goes against good manners and the sort. Â But stay with me here, remember they need to get comfortable with food!Â
Generally, the first step is to get your child to touch the food. Â Start there and be creative. Â You might say something like, “Let’s see if we can stand your little pieces of broccoli up like a forrest.” Â 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”). Â In this case, you could say, “Wow, my broccoli looks like a bouquet of flowers. I am going to smell my flowers. Â Can you smell yours?” Â From there you can move onto licking, tasting a small bite, and taking a normal bite. Â Also, give them permission to discreetly spit it out. Â 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. Â I haven’t had any kid I Â work with get inappropriate with spitting it out. Â 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:Â
1. Spend 2-3 minutes at the end of a meal “playing” with any refused foods. Â 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. Â I would avoid this if it is chaotic or your child has had enough of sitting for a meal. Â Aim for keeping this short and sweet. Â
2. Cook and prepare meals with your kids. Â Get your kid in the kitchen and help cook, without much help from you, they will be touching and smelling the food. Â 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. Â In between meals, set up some food exploration time at a table. Â It would be great if this was at a table they don’t normally eat at, so the association isn’t with eating. Â Have some utensils for cutting and getting creative. Â Most importantly, make sure you have set up food for yourself to play with, too. Â Ideally, they have a plate and you have a plate. Â You model and they imitate. Â
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. Â Don’t hold the food up for them to smell, let them do it. Â Hopefully, you will be following their lead. Â It is important they have control of the food they are interacting with.
- Keep it fun. Â If your kid gets upset or distracted, then try to end the play quickly and as positive as possible.
- Be patient. Â 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. Â It takes time, patience, and consistency. Â
- Keep the pressure off. Â 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. Â I know quite well that picky eaters will often stop eating something they previously loved, never to touch it again. Â You can certainly employ these tactics for those lost foods, too. Â
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. Â 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.Â
Alisha Grogan, MOTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist that specializes in feeding difficulties and sensory integration in the Pittsburgh area. Â 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. Â You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.