Updated: May 26
The Starter Guide: What You Need to Know to Make Mealtimes Stress Free
There is so much information out there about healthy eating and what foods your child should and should't eat. It's hard not to worry about if they are getting enough nutrients. Eating and mealtimes can feel so emotional and personal, as it feels like one of the most important jobs as a parent. Is my child fed, are they healthy? It can be so stressful to figure out how to get your child to eat a variety foods. However, there are some simple strategies for how to talk about food and how to expose your child to foods that can easily promote positive food experiences and a more diverse diet for your child.
Get Creative: prepare the foods in fun, engaging ways
Sometimes children will be more interested in trying foods when given in new ways, such as the vegetables making a face or flower. Make a picture or design with the foods and allow them to play with them and make their own pictures or designs. Other times, they will be more likely to try it when it's presented not a food but as a fun activity. Make playdough with applesauce, towers with toothpicks and different fruit, or you can even let them push their favorite toys through a cold soup or pasta. Your child may surprise you when they sneak a sniff or nibble of a food they have never eaten before when it's not presented as food they have to eat!
Sometimes, picky eaters reject certain foods due to their texture or appearance. Experiment with different cooking methods, flavors, and presentations to make the food more appealing. For example, if a child dislikes steamed broccoli, try roasting it or adding a sprinkle of grated cheese. You can also puree vegetables and incorporate them into sauces, soups, or smoothies. By making small tweaks to the preparation, you may find that your picky eater is more willing to give it a chance. (We do not recommended trying to hide foods in smoothies or sauces however. If your child is highly sensitive to the taste of these foods, they will be able to taste them and by hiding them, you will loosing your child's trust, as they will think you are sneaking them food in all meals.)
Keep it Feeling Safe: always have a preferred food option
Many parents get excited by the idea of adding new food to their child's diet and go all in, all at once. I get it, once you commit to working on something it's easy to feel like you have to fully commit. However, only giving children new food can make it a more anxious time and environment for them. Introduce new foods gradually and repeatedly by offering small portions of unfamiliar foods alongside familiar favorites, creating a safe environment for them. They know they will be fed, they know there is something they like, and it puts them at ease. It helps them think through trying a new food, because if they don't like it there will be something they know they like that they can eat instead.
Stay Neutral: present all foods the same way
It's easy to talk about foods as good or bad, however all types of foods are needed for our bodies (even fat and sugar!). The only rule we have at Next Steps about foods is that something sweet should be served with a type of protein. No matter what your are serving your child you say here is your food. After that, there is no pressuring for them to eat it or to try it. You can model eating it, talking about what it tastes like, it texture, or temperature. The closest we get to recommending talking about food as good is talking about how it helps your body. For example, green food helps your lungs breath better, orange foods help your eyes see in the dark, cheese has calcium which keeps our bones strong, meat has protein which makes our muscles strong, white foods have engery. Food shouldn't be a reward and we don't want children thinking they only get praise when they eat the foods you want them to eat. Food is about supporting our bodies and love and praise isn't dependent on the foods they eat. Keeping your response to all food the same will help your child see all food the same.
Gradual Exposure: slowly present new foods
At Next Steps we recommend introducing a new food every two weeks. Take the time to target just a few foods (no more than five) every two weeks. This allows repeated gradual exposure and builds in the expectation that these foods are going to be served to them from now on. As you build in new foods try what is called food chaining. You want the new foods to have two of the same properties as the foods your child already eats. So the new foods can have the same texture, shape, color. Get creative! Dye foods so they now have the same color. Cut foods so they are now the same shape. Talk about how the foods are the same as you build in new foods. This is often where our families require the most support when participating in our in person or parent coaching method of occupational therapy feeding support services.
Family Meals: take away the idea that your child eats differently than the rest of the family
This is the first place we often start during occupational therapy in person or parent coaching feeding services, especially with children who may have learned to call themselves picky. This takes away the idea that the your child eats something different. Once a day your family has a family meal. It doesn't matter if its breakfast, lunch, or dinner, but the idea is that everyone is served the same food. If you are making your child a separate meal with the foods you know they will eat, you will take one piece of those foods and put it on everyone's plate. And your picky eater will take one piece of the foods you are eating and put it on their plate. Try to increase your child's interaction with the foods they don't like by having them serve themselves or help you prepare the meal. This builds the slow expectation that your child can have the same foods as you and takes away the idea that they eat something different or special from the rest of the family. Never pressure your child to try the foods, but you can use empowering statements like "you can try it" and talking about how the foods tastes, it temperature, or texture so if your child decides to eat a new food you have prepared them for what it might be like. You may be surprised to watch this carryover to other mealtimes with your picky eater taking new foods on their plate even if they don't try them.
Questions about how to implement this with your own child? Comment below or reach out at our website to setup a phone call to talk about what services would be right for you! What has worked for you in the past, or what hasn't worked? Let us know in the comments.