Having a child who is picky eater often means daily frustrations for moms and dads as they become overwhelmed with being a short-order cook, having their day revolve around what their child will eat and when, or struggling to have their child tolerate and eat “normal” foods. It’s also hard to know whether your child’s pickiness is part of typical development, as toddlers often do display some finicky eating, or if there are some underlying sensory integration difficulties. For a child with sensory integration difficulties, there may also be other areas of sensitivity and aversions and it may be best to follow-up with your occupational therapist for additional insights and treatment ideas.
Below are some ideas of strategies to try at mealtime to assist your picky eater in increasing his interest and independence with feeding:
· Allow your picky eater to explore with and play with his food. Eating is a whole-body experience in which we need to first become comfortable with the sight, smell, and feel of foods. By engaging in food play (painting with applesauce, washing plastic cars with pudding, having a tea party and feeding small farm animals), you are providing an experience that is “safer” to explore textures and providing the opportunity to taste new foods without the pressure that can arise at mealtime. Getting messy is okay!
· Encourage your child to get more involved with food preparation. A child is more likely to try things he has helped make.
· Introduce new and different foods with foods of interest and in a sequential non-threatening way! Using divided plates can be your friend and encourage your child to initially just tolerate the new food on his plate. After a few days, work on touching the food. Once he is comfortable to touch it, I would ask him to bring it to his lips and pretend to kiss it. Once he is successful with that, you may work towards licking the food and eventually taking a small bite. Keep in mind that research shows that children can take up to 15 times of trying a food before they swallow it and or truly determine if they like it or not. Don’t give up the first few times!
· Once you find a particularly successful food, try introducing similar foods. Some things to be aware of are the texture, color, temperature, and taste of foods. Try slightly changing one of these items (i.e. moving from Goldfish crackers to cheddar bunnies; moving from chocolate pudding to chocolate and vanilla mixed pudding; trying level II baby food to level II baby food with mashed cheerios).
· Learn to love condiments! Dipping foods is a wonderful way to work on expanding on tastes as you can try such condiments as ketchup, salad dressing, mustard, barbecue sauce, gravy, spaghetti sauce, whip cream, chocolate, cottage cheese, yogurt, creamy soups. You can then work on introducing a variety of things to dip including crackers, fruits, vegetables, chicken nuggets, and fries.
· Count on inconsistency. For young children, what they will eat and how much they are willing to eat may (and probably will!) vary daily.
· Engage your child in oral motor play. Whistles, bubbles, vibrating toothbrush, blow toys, chewy tubes, sucking through a straw…all of these provide opportunities for your child to engage in mouth play in order to build up his muscles (for chewing and swallowing) and to decrease the sensitivities he may have around his mouth.
· Provide consistent praise and positive reinforcement. If he played with it, smelled it, licked it, tasted it, chewed it and/or actually swallowed it…praise him for what he did! Don’t punish what he didn’t do.
Finally, don’t forget the importance of setting a good example yourself! Eat together as a family, eat in front of your child, and provide opportunities for him to try something on your plate if he would like. Keep in mind that it may take your child a long time to feel comfortable with trying new or different foods and I say make mountains out of mole-hills when it comes to feeding! Small successes are huge and both you and your child deserve to celebrate small break-throughs. Continue to consult with your occupational therapist for additional mealtime strategies and/or a nutritionist if necessary.
Keira Gathers, MOT