For many parents it can be a frustrating and overwhelming event during meal times if their child is a picky eater. I think when we become parents we have this expectation that our kids will just eat whatever we serve them, but this is definitely not always the case. We come to learn that feeding kids can be more complicated than initially thought.
It’s tricky to know where to begin when it comes to helping your little one with food and expanding their food choices and acceptance of trying new things. Below are my top tips for family mealtimes at home to encourage your little ones to expand their food variety and be more open to different foods.
- Exposure, exposure, EXPOSURE. When a child at first doesn’t like a food or refuses to eat it the first thing we often do is stop serving that food because we know it’s a lost cause. The most important thing here though is actually to continue exposing them to this food every now and then on their dinner plate or in their lunchbox. We know that it can take up to 100 exposures to a food before a child may be willing to touch it, smell it, or taste it. Stick with it.
- The learning bowl. Have a designated empty bowl on the table for all meal times so the child can put unwanted food in there instead of throwing it on the floor or having a meltdown that it is on their plate. Saves on the mess and wastage.
- Kiss the food goodbye. If there is something on your little one’s plate or in their lunch box that they don’t want to eat yet, encourage them to give it a kiss goodbye and pop it in the learning bowl. Having the food touch their lips or their hands is counted as an exposure towards them accepting this food eventually into their diet.
- YES to playing with food! Most of us grew up being told not to play with our food. This is in fact the exact opposite of what we should be doing when trying to expose a little one to new tastes, textures and smells. Go ahead! Build a tower with your carrots, use an asparagus stick to hit peas across the plate like you’re playing hockey, paint with dips and sauce to make patterns on your plate or food. Make food FUN. Exposure, exposure, exposure.
- Remove the pressure to eat. As parents we decide what to present our kids in their lunch boxes or on their plates, but it is their choice what they will eat from the selection. Try to limit comments like “just try this”, “you’ll like it” or “do you like it?”.
- Spitting is ok. Hear me out on this one! As adults we have learnt that if something is not enjoyable or able to be eaten after it’s in our mouth we can spit it quietly into a napkin or find a way to get it out of our mouth so that we feel ok. It is important to teach our children that if they try something, they have a safety net of being able to spit it out if they choose not to swallow it. Playing spitting games with food can actually help to expose your child to new flavours and tastes that they would usually refuse to try. See who can spit a pea the furthest or who can bite with their teeth to see the pattern on a carrot and then spit it onto the plate to see what pattern you’ve made.
The above recommendations are just the beginning of some really wonderful food programs that are available. If you are particularly concerned about your child’s fussy eating or restrictive eating please contact a pediatrician or find an experienced paediatric occupational therapist, speech pathologist or dietitian.