Over the last 16 plus years as a feeding therapist and as a mother to three children, I’ve learned that the most successful strategies for treating feeding problems are ones that capitalize on a child’s internal motivation to try new things. Children desire bodily autonomy as much as we do as adults and fear of new foods can sometimes result in visceral responses. Tuning into their need for independence and control can decrease battles around food, build confidence, and incite enthusiasm for novel experiences. “Children do well when they can” is a theme of The Explosive Child by Ross Greene (2010), and I remind myself frequently of this when I’m working with children and coaching parents. Finding the tools that give children independence and confidence is the best way to create a lifelong positive relationship with food. If you’ve got a picky eater at home, here are some common items that can be game-changers.
1. Cocktail picks/Kabob skewers: Jazzing up (or just changing) the way food is served can make all the difference in children’s attitudes and willingness to try new foods. For children who don’t seem to know where to start when presented with food or who have oral motor delays, it can help to cut food into small, cube-shaped pieces that can be speared with small toothpicks or cocktail picks. Toothpicks are often easier for small hands to handle and come in fun shapes (Swords! Mermaids! Hearts!) that delight young ones. For a child who enjoys patterns, model how they can create their own kabob pattern with three kinds of fruit such as strawberries, apples, and grapes. My children will happily eat every piece of fruit off a skewer while ignoring the very same fruit when served in a bowl.
2. Lettuce Knife: Every home with children needs one of these! We know from the research and clinical experience that pressure to eat creates needless battles and actually can decrease appetite and willingness to try new things. Assisting in food prep is one of the best ways to expose children to new foods without that pressure- the activity of cutting (like mom and dad!) is rewarding in itself. The bonus is that as they cut, they will have to hold onto the food and will get juices on their hands that may be licked off, and you might even glance over and see them sampling some lettuce out of curiosity. You can hand a lettuce knife to a child of any age without fear that they will harm themselves, and they can cut all of your fruits and vegetables and gain a sense of pride as your sous chef!
3. Stable seating with foot support: Picture yourself sitting at your favorite bar chatting with friends. Where are your feet? Propped up on the rung at the bottom of the stool or on the bar itself, right? When we are sitting, especially when we are eating, we need to feel stable. Dangling feet are uncomfortable and distracting, and can significantly shorten a child’s attention for eating. Providing seating that promotes postural stability- especially if your little one has gross motor delays- allows your child to concentrate on what is happening in their mouth, their hunger signals, and eating to fullness and not how uncomfortable they are. Consider an adjustable chair with a built in footrest that grows with the child or add a stool that positions their feet at a comfortable height.
4. Face plates: Young children go through a period of food neophobia, or fear of new foods, beginning at approximately 16 months through 5 years. Yes, it can last through all of their preschool years! By allowing them to engage with foods in different ways with no expectation that they will eat them, you can spark curiosity and interest in a food that might be completely ignored if you asked them to eat it. Making faces out of food on plates with pre-drawn blank faces can be a silly way to encourage touching and experiencing a variety of food textures and colors that might otherwise be shunned. For a cheap and disposable option, draw faces on paper plates. Have older children? Do this activity seated opposite each other behind an upright folder and then surprise each other with your creations!
5. Lazy Susan: Have you ever tried offering sprinkles to your child during a meal? Lemon wedges? A cinnamon-sugar shaker? Salt and pepper? You might be surprised to find out how much more interested your child is in eating foods when he can add fun toppings or condiments to them without anyone telling him not to. A Lazy Susan on the kitchen table is a great place to keep condiments, toppings, and spices for your child to explore and add to his food during a meal, and makes it easy to access with little assistance. He may discover that he has a passion for pepper or a love for lemon. A dash of sprinkles or a bit of colored sugar can turn toast into a party!
6. Clear serving bowls: My number one tip to families is to serve meals family-style. That means placing all the food on the table, whether it be a full home-cooked meal or take-out pizza. Put all the foods in clear serving bowls on the table so your child can see what is available and visually familiarize themselves with new foods from afar. Get serving bowls with lids and leftovers can be quickly popped into the refrigerator after the meal. If you want to avoid battles from the get-go, avoid putting food on your child’s plate for them. Allow children to serve themselves from what is available- they can do this as young as 20 months or so! I often pull out ingredients before combining them into a casserole or soup for my more selective child and serve them in clear ramekins so he can try them separately. Parents frequently tell me that simply serving family-style and not pre-plating has led to happier family mealtimes with more eating and less bickering about food.
If you are agonizing about your child’s eating, and think they might be an extreme picky eater, know that there is help available! End mealtime battles and anxiety with practical, up-to-date strategies and tips to help turn around even ‘extreme’ picky eating. Check out our book and website or find us on Facebook at Extreme Picky Eating Help.
Jenny McGlothlin, MS, CCC/SLP, CLC is a Speech-language Pathologist/Feeding Specialist at The UT Dallas Callier Center and Co-Author, Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating: A Step-by-Step Guide for Overcoming Selective Eating, Food Aversion, and Feeding Disorders