Let your child be as involved as possible in food preparation and meal times. You can have them help wash fruits or vegetables, put things you chopped into a bowl, help set the table, or carry things to the table when they are ready to serve. Obviously, don’t give them a sharp knife until they are old enough to handle it safely, but you can buy plastic knives or give them non-serrated butter knives to cut soft foods like bananas and strawberries. Some families will have a particular day or two when the kids know they’re helping with meal preparation.
Make meals fun by using exciting placemats, cool cups, special straws, or even kid-oriented utensils. Sometimes I have kids make their own placemats and then we have them laminated for repeat use at meals (places like Staples or Kinkos do laminating for very small fees).
Exposure, Exposure, Exposure. The concept of exposure means to present a food to your child even if they don’t consume it. You should be exposing kids, especially picky eaters, to foods every day; sometimes kids need to be exposed to new foods 6, 7, or 8 times. I encourage parents to have new foods on the table, on a parent’s plate, and if possible on your child’s plate. If your child is very sensitive to non-preferred foods being on their plate or close to them, start with it nearby and bring it closer each time you serve this food item. Eventually, your goal should be to get it on his plate. DO NOT force, coax or encourage them to eat this food. Just expose them to it. You don’t want meals to become a war zone! You can describe it, talk about the taste (sweet, salty, savory, sour, minty, chocolatey), texture (crunchy, soft, smooth, hard, wet, dry, crispy), color, shape (round like a circle or a ball), etc. When the meal is done, you can have them assist with clean up (see specifics below in #13) to increase interactions with the new food.
You can exposure children to foods through play as well. If your child is old enough, pretend foods, tea party sets, and mini kitchens are just a few of the toys on the market that can help introduce your child to new foods. There is no pressure to eat them since everything is a toy! You can even play with a new food one day, then serve it for lunch the next day; be sure to point out that it is the same food you were playing with the other day.
Although some people do it, I do not recommend trying to trick your child into eating healthier foods (e.g. hiding spinach in a smoothie, making zucchini muffins and telling them it is their usual favorite kind, etc.). You don’t want them to feel a lack of trust with you and food. You can tell them you made a new kind of brownie – or a new kind of muffin, and see if he likes it. Also, never force feed your child. We want food and eating to be a positive experience!
Instead of presenting random new foods, try building off of foods and flavors that your child already likes. If your daughter likes breaded chicken, try breading zucchini or fish with the same spices. Does she like french fries? Try offering sweet potato fries or carrot fries. Make small changes instead of big ones and be patient. Try offering these new ‘takes’ on foods more than once.
Have your meals at the table, family style. Many kids like to see and eat what their parents, siblings, and other loved ones are eating. When children are younger than 6 or 7 years old, this also allows them to participate in serving themselves (gives them control) and lets them place foods on their plates as they would like them (usually not touching each other!).
Make sure your child has proper supportive seating. You don’t want them reaching up to get their food or slouching too much in their seats. This could distract them from eating or deter them from sitting at the table.
Your child should be able to sit at the table for the duration of a meal. You can give them reminders to ‘come sit down’, or ‘we’re not done eating yet’. If your child has difficulty staying seated at the table, you can use visual timers (there are some apps available for this or you can use a timer that beeps for older kids). Meals should be no more than 30-45 minutes.
Your child should be getting 3 meals a day with up to 2 snacks, one in the mid-morning and one in the mid-afternoon. Some parents like to give their child an early dinner and a snack closer to bedtime. This is also fine. If your child does not want a snack between meals, that is okay as long as they are eating sufficient calories and nutrients during meals. For example, breakfast is at 7:30am, snack at 10:00am, lunch is at 12:30pm, snack at 3:00pm and then dinner at 6pm. As stated above, meals should be 30-45 minutes or less. Snacks should be closer to 15 minutes.
No Grazing! This is when kids eat and pick at foods and snacks throughout the day. This not only suppresses their appetites at meals, but it never gives their little bodies a break from digesting food.
Limit liquids between and before meals. Many picky eaters are ‘big drinkers’ of milk, water, juice, etc. If your 3 year old drinks 8 ounces of milk right before lunch, she may not have room in her little belly for more than a few bites of food. I advise parents to limit liquids/drinks until children have had at least 50% of their meal or snack. This will allow them to get some food in their stomachs before they fill up on drinks. Did you ever hear the weight loss secret of drinking a full glass of water before you have a meal? Same concept! If your child is not a ‘big drinker,’ then you don’t need to restrict their drinking.
Perform food exploration activities with your child. Where does this food come from? Have them help you pick out fresh produce at the grocery store or farmer’s markets. Have them help with peeling foods so they can see how the food changes before and after. How does a food change when it goes from raw to cooked (e.g. think hard crunchy pasta versus soft wet noodles)? In feeding therapy, we call this ‘food science’ and it is one way to increase exposure and educate your children about foods they may be avoiding.
Invest in some fun cookie cutters or tools like a Pop Chef. Wouldn’t it be fun to eat a star shaped cucumber and a butterfly shaped apple slice? Kids love helping to create these fun masterpieces too – and they are fun to eat! Also, don’t underestimate the power of creativity. If your child does not want to eat sandwiches, offer them wraps, roll ups of just meat-cheese-veggie, lettuce wraps, or cut the sandwiches into little sticks or rectangles. Kids like finger foods.
If your child says “yuck” or “I don’t want it” even before they have seen it, touched it, smelled it, or tasted it, you can help them by using different language. Instead of ‘yuck’, encourage them to say, “I am not used to it yet” or “it is new”. Then you can do exposure and food exploration – let them learn about the food in a safe way so they don’t feel pressured to eat it. Everyone has foods they dislike, but for picky eaters, these statements often appear as an avoidance tactic or when they are seeking control.
Kids often want to please others. They think that if a food goes into their mouth they must swallow it, even if they don’t like it. If your child wants to try a new food but is apprehensive, tell them they can try licking it first. They try a tiny bite; if they don’t like it, they can spit it into a napkin.
When meals and snacks are completed, your picky eater should help clean up foods from their plate, even when they are little. They can bring their plates to the trash can or you can bring the trash can to them at the table depending on their age. In therapy, I advise parents to have children use their fingers to remove leftover foods whenever possible (e.g. slices of chicken, pieces of broccoli); this is especially true for foods that they are refusing to touch or eat. As a means for increased exposure through tactile contact, the child removes the food items from their plate to signify the end of the meal. If foods are purees or are very messy, you can have them use a utensil instead.
Don’t become a short order cook! Meal times are not supposed to be like dining at a restaurant where you have one meal and your two kids each have something totally different…sometimes even from each other. If your child wants some sense of control, you can offer them two choices of something you are serving. For example, “Do you want carrots or green beans with your grilled cheese sandwich?”
You can do trips to farms, bakeries, orchards, or even just the grocery stores in your area. Explore different places that food come from so your child can experience these things with you.
Craft and math projects are a fun way for kids to explore new foods. You can make everything from macaroni necklaces to applesauce finger paintings. If your child is old enough, encourage counting foods (e.g. how many baby carrots do you want, how many cucumber slices do you have on your plate, how many chicken nuggets are you going to eat?), or sort foods by color, shape, or type.
You can offer a ‘reward activity’ for once the meal is completed. Some kids like to earn stickers, time on a phone or tablet, or special quality time with a parent after a meal.
No technology or distractions at the table. This means no phones, iPads, tablets, television, toys for anyone. Always set the example you want them to follow. Meal time is for eating and socializing, not technology. When the meal is completed, your child can watch a video or play with a toy.
Be patient. We all know that children can frustrate us sometimes, but try to take a deep breath and be as patient as possible.