If you have a child who is a picky eater I hope you read my last article ‘Help! My child is a super picky eater or is it a sensory sensitivity‘. I shared some information about the many reasons that can contribute to a child who is a picky eater. Hopefully some of this information can help you get a better understanding of where your child’s picky eating might be stemming from.
As a parent of a child who is a picky eater the first step is to try and understand why and where this stems from. Secondly, you want reassurance that they are healthy weight and not at risk. Thirdly, you want to be able to help them move past this with some strategies to help broaden their diet and accepted food categories. Lastly, you want the food battles to end.
14 Hot Tips to help a child who is a picky eater
Whether your child is fussy, an extremely picky eater, or has a sensory processing difficulty relating to a foods look, feel, smell or taste, these ideas might help. The hard and fast rule is not to force them, but to work out ways to help them adapt and get past their foodie obstacles.
Top Tip: As long as your child is considered a healthy weight, growing adequately and not at risk of being under nourished, then don’t pick battles over every last leafy green on their dinner plate.
1. Consistency, Routine, Structure.
It is important to make sure you have a consistent routine and structure with regards to mealtimes. Especially so you can notice changes, patterns, and take note of areas of improvement. More importantly consistency and routine can help a child who is a picky eater by providing predictability and balance.
Establishing a consistent routine and structure can be as simple as eating meals at a similar time of day, at a similar setting, or with the same plate. Another option is that you might have a similar meal and introduce one or two things each week. For instance, if your child will eat a certain fruit and veg, that is on EVERY meal, with the addition of on new thing, or whatever you are eating.
2. Add appropriate Sensory input.
When children are under the age of four, they are still in the embodiment (Jennings, 1999) stage. This means they are still learning about their world primarily through their senses. In order to make the most out of new experiences they need to perform at an optimal level of sensory input. Some children need a higher level of sensory input, some not much.
Often providing sensory input in many other forms throughout their day can help desensitise sensory aversions. Make sure the child gets enough sensory input in other forms through the embodiment period, such as hands on sensory activities and physical contact. You can help them not only get used to many other smells, sights, textures, tastes, and sounds, but you also increase their awareness of their surroundings and controlling their senses. try some of these sensory activities…
- Make a sensory bottle
- A sensory Christmas list of activities
- Scented Calming Playdough
- Here are 115 play ideas for toddlers
3. Introduce food with a game.
A good way to start introducing diversity of taste and texture is by making it fun. One way we have done this is by a game, eyes shut and taste. It works particularly well in a group or family setting where others can be a good example of trying new tastes. The aim of the game is to be blind folded, open your mouth, and taste the unknown food long enough to either eat it or guess what it is. You could give a point if the child eats it, or leaves it in their mouth while guessing, or when they get it correct.
Alternatively you can help a child who is a picky eater decrease the sensitivity within the mouth by giving them a vibrating toothbrush or a frozen netted chew toy. Research has suggested that children who develop food sensitivities or aversions, have missed the sensory period of mouthing.
4. Build from your foundations.
Work with what you have, but don’t give in. Work and build from your success. If your child is fixated on one texture, taste or material build on to that and try to be subtle in adding another object with a similar taste or texture. Make small changes.
Small changes could be as simple as changing the brand/type of bread, then rolls, then buns and wraps. It might be as simple as eating crackers, then adding a small spread of butter, then adding a smear of cream cheese. If they like crunchy run with the crunch and try crunchy crumbed chicken, zucchini and so on.
5. Give the child who is a picky eater some control.
Another way to build on what they like is to hand the reigns over to your child… To some extent. You want to give them choices but also realise they need to negotiate and compromise. For instance, “Ok, you like toast and chips, I am cooking chicken with vegetables tonight… Your choice, do you want chips or a piece of toast with it”.
It is best to do this with pre-defined options that you have chosen. Don’t just let your child go crazy… Give them the feeling of control and give them some independence and freedom but also provide the consistency that they are expected to eat a variety of food with the family. You can also use the principle of consistency by adding their known/favourite foods on the side. When Dimples was younger, the only vegetable he would eat was steamed broccoli, so one “tree” would go on his plate nearly every night.
Mother: “Where do you want to eat lunch today?”
Fussy Eater: “The garden”
Mother: “Ok lets go!”
6. Cook with them.
This is often taken for granted. If children are exposed to and interact with a wide array of foods, they are more likely to develop an open mind about them. If they are involved in the process of baking and making, they will develop a broader mindset towards food. This is also a sensory activity that predisposes them to many smells, textures and sights before the actual tasting.
Cook with them. Bake with them. Fruit salads are super easy. But in reference to turning a bunch of healthy things into something tasty and easy on the eye that also smells fantastical, you can’t go past a slushy. We make all sorts of “slushy” recipes with my nutri-ninja. The kids don’t even care what goes in or what colour it is now.
7. Don’t make them a second meal.
This sets a negative precedent that you don’t want to deal with every other day. A few years back I did a Positive Parenting course, and one topic I recall new parents asking about was ‘picky eater’ and the second dinner. One mother asked “I am cooking three meals every night. What do I do if they refuse … ” Before she could finish the question, the team leader said “stop cooking three meals and stick it out for two weeks. If they are hungry they will eat, they will not starve themselves to death.”. After the consistency of not getting their own way, they will start accepting your dinners and then you can work with it from there.
It stuck with me because it makes sense. If a generally healthy bodied child is hungry, they will end up eating. Yes they will get HANGRY and have meltdowns for that second meal and refuse to eat, but not for long. They will get it and learn your boundry is one dinner… not more.
If however, they develop learned behaviours from for instance, you giving in and making a second dinner, then you are digging yourself a deeper hole. See my previous past that goes over some reasons why kids develop fussy eating patterns. One major aspect is that they learn quick… Like what they can get away with.
8. Re-focus meal times.
Instead of focusing on their (not) eating patterns, and drumming into them about how they need to try this, and just have a bite of one thing etc. try to make mealtime an everyday, calm and neutral occurrence where you lead by role model. Sit together with them, have your own meal and role model eating a range and variety of food without any fuss.
Add in an element of refocusing on other things, like family conversation, how food is made or grown, what you are going to do after, what they want to eat tomorrow, anything other than the usual hassle and stress that fussy eaters are often met with.
Yes, I said it. Sorry, but bribes do work. If you are using them fairly and appropriately to the situation, I don’t see a problem. Mr Dimples is a great eater now. We never had much TV time when he was little, so I used Tv time as a bribe if he ate dinner… He was allowed half hour before a bath, BUT if he wasn’t eating the prospect of TV time in the evening was jeopardised. So, he ate.
Another bribe that has worked for us. No dinner, no dessert. We don’t have huge desserts but if the kids eat a majority of their “good stuff” (salad/veggies/grains and a taste of meat) they get dessert. To us, dessert is a piece of dark chocolate, a yoghurt, homemade jelly with fruit, a cookie and warm milk or a hot chocolate.
10. A reward system and a behaviour chart.
Reward systems go along way when trying to encourage the start of a new behaviour. Something as simple as a table on a word document, stuck up on the fridge and any time the child who is a picky eater tries a new food, or eats something with no drama, they get a sticker or a stamp to fill up their chart. Once the chart is full they then get the ‘reward’. Here is a cute one.
If you can, let them pick the reward so it is something they want to work towards and give out the stars straight away so they have not only a visual reward but also instant gratification. Reward system’s don’t work if you give the reward a day late. End of chart rewards could be something like going to watch a movie, going for a special outing, getting a ice cream with parents one-on-one, or a physical prize like a book or a small toy.
Another idea is to use these sort of portions plates, and if they manage to eat (not complete, but atleast try) each portion they get a star.
12. Mix it up with some fun.
Make meal time fun. You can get them to join in by cooking and mixing and so forth. Or, you can make meal time fun by serving meals in visually appealing ways. Make patterns or faces. Present it differently. Use different utensils, even chop sticks. Serve it on a picnic rug on the ground and sit on the floor to eat.
The only way I could get my kids to eat corn off the cob when they were little was to sit with them and ask them in a silly mousy voice “can you nibble on it like a mouse” (and I would eat mine like that), “can you take a monster bite” and take a big bite. “How would a monkey eat it… show me”.
You could try different shaped plates and bowls or cool utensils, or try eating in different settings. You could serve several pots of sauce to dip food into, or make up one day of the week where every one eats wearing a hat or something to mix it up and make it fun.
13. Lead by example.
Just be there and enjoy your own food with them. Make a conscious effort to stay positive and set healthy examples yourself (always with a positive attitude and mind-frame). Keep in mind that food is still new to your child, and they must learn. If you combine a healthy balanced diet with routine mealtimes a priority for yourself as well, you’re a great role model and that’s the best thing you can do.
This is a no pressure easy-going technique where the child can learn through observation. It doesn’t happen over night but for fussy eaters it might start to shape their mind into an open accepting one where they want to be just like you and eat just like you.
14. Read about it
Books… Always a great avenue to teach children they aren’t alone. Plus children love being read to, they take so much of it in. I have used books to address many issues and open up discussions and learning about subjects that the children are struggling with.
Give the child who is a picky eater sensory activities
Like I mentioned previously, children under the age of four-five are in the embodiment stage of learning. They NEED sensory stimulation to learn. Some more than others. Often fussy eaters can have a tactile defensiveness or dysfunction. To ensure adequate sensory stimulation throughout the day offer a variety of sensory input activities that the child can exert control over.
- A vibrating toothbrush.
- This tooth brushing activity.
- Sensory bins.
- Sensory bottles.
- A calming sensory corner.
- Scented play dough.
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