One of the most common comments that I hear from parents in regards to feeding is “my child is a picky eater.” Even though communicating preferences (and dislikes) for certain foods is a part of typical development, it can quickly transition to picky eating and difficult mealtimes.Frequently, the assumption is made that a child does not like a particular foodafter it has been offered and rejected at one mealtime, and parents mark it off their list of foods to offer in the future.
When a child continually refuses new foods for an extended period of time, it results in a short list of preferred foods (often the infamous diet ofchicken nuggets, french fries, fruit pouches, macaroni and cheese, and crackers) and the child frequently misses out on important nutrients needed for development. Picky eating can lead to stressful mealtimes for parents and children both, as parents frequently prepare additional items for their “picky eater” or risk limiting the diet of the other family members if they only prepare from the picky eater’s shortlist. As a child grows and encounters more social situations where eating plays an important role, picky eating becomes more difficult. Also, picky eating can lead to a feeding disorder if not managed appropriately. There are significant differences between picky eating and feeding disorders. For more information regarding feeding and swallowing disorders see:
Here are some suggestions for introducing new foods during mealtimes-
- Begin offering as many new flavors and textures as soon as it is developmentally appropriate.
- Offer a new or non-preferred food paired with 1-2 preferred foods. Offering an entire meal of new foods can cause anxiety for children and may attract negative attention when the child does not touch any of the food on their plate.
- Offer small portions of new foods in order to preventing overwhelming the child or causing the new food to appear threatening. A child is more likely to be successful with a small portion.
- Families should eat together during mealtimes as much as possible and each family member should have a serving of the “new food”offeredin order to serve as models for the child. Avoid any negative comments regarding the meal.
- Continue to cycle through foods. The more familiar a child becomes with a food, the more likely they are going to accept it. Do not be discouraged if a child does not immediately gobble up steamed carrots or strawberries the first time they are offered. Continued exposure to new foods (10+ times) will help expand a child’s diet by helping the child become comfortable with the new food.
- Condiments, spreads, and sauces. Children love dipping finger foods into different sauces. Offer a new vegetable with a side of ranch, or apple slices with a side of peanut butter.
- Have set mealtimes. Allowing a child to graze on preferred foods throughout the day will not ever give them an opportunity to become hungry. If a child is not hungry, they will likely remain uninterested in any new foods offered. Hunger (not starvation) can be a good motivator for a child to accept new foods during mealtimes.
- If the child is extremely aversive to a food and becomes upset each time the food is present on their plate, take a few steps back and present the food in a less threatening environment. If a child will not touch a food with their fingers, it is very unlikely that they are going to eat it. Food play is a great way to help a child become comfortable with different foods, especially is a child is aversive to foods of a specific texture. This also helps build familiarity.
- Cook with your child. There are great parent/child cookbooks that provide easy recipes that the parent and child can prepare together. A child will become very familiar with a dish and it’s ingredients if involved in the preparation, and children are more likely to accept a dish they helped create. Allowing a child to help prepare meals also creates positive experiences surrounding food.
Here are some behaviors and strategies to avoid when introducing new foods-
- Distracting the child with favorite television shows or the iPad may seem like a simple fix, although it frequently causes more significant problems down the road when the child is not in an environment where they cannot be distracted during mealtimes (i.e. school or other social settings). Distraction eating is not healthy eating.
- Never force food on children. Some parents think “if they just try it, they will like it” and while that may be the case, forcing foods on children creates negative associations with foods and mealtimes, and can make mealtimes stressful. Because mealtimes happen three times a day and every day of the week, they need to be enjoyable and fun, instead of a battleground for eating.
If you have additional questions about picky eating or feel that your child’s limited diet may be a sign of a feeding disorder, please contact us at Speech and Occupational Therapy of North Texas. A licensed therapist can answer any questions and schedule anevaluation if feeding concerns continue.