“I’m Not Eating That”
Picky eating often begins around the age of three, when children start developing food preferences. It’s a fine line–to engage in a mealtime battle versus nutritional intake. Children who are picky eaters for no apparent rhyme or reason are usually strong-willed, have difficulty accepting changes, and quickly learn they can easily exert control over what they put in their mouth. Some children, however, may appear to be picky eaters, but in fact have underlying problems—an oversensitivity to tastes and textures, allergic reactions to certain foods, or oral motor weaknesses that can cause difficulty chewing and swallowing.
It is important to know the stages of progression from liquids to solids, but by the age of one, a child should be able to eat most finger foods. In addition to knowing the stages, there are some beneficial strategies to promote variety in tastes and textures for your child’s diet and prevent them from becoming picky eaters.
Try to make feeding fun. Explore finger painting with foods, such as yogurt, pudding, and applesauce. This will increase tolerance to tastes and textures of wet and messy foods on hands before it enters the mouth. Dry foods (like cereal) are great for arts and crafts. From a sensory standpoint, a child can tolerate dry tactile food better than wet.
Mealtime routines, such as eating together and set meal times, make children more comfortable and willing to try new foods. This is even more important when they can eat the same foods as the family.
It can take up to 15 tries before a child acquires the taste of a new food. Don’t give up, and continue to offer the food on the child’s plate. Sometimes a child may need to adjust to the smell and sight of a new food before she’s able to touch or eat it. Therefore, continued presentation of foods that the family is eating at mealtime is imperative.
Involve your child in grocery shopping and cooking! Let them pick out a new food or
ingredient to try or to go with one of their favorite foods. When cooking, have them explore tastes and textures with their hands and mouth.
Present foods in a variety of different ways. For example, if a child enjoys eating french fries, make them in different forms, cuts, or flavors. For fruits, slice them differently each time and provide different varieties. Cutting and preparing vegetables differently each time can help them accept changes in food. A common food that children begin to show strong preferences for is chicken nuggets. If your child is starting to become a chicken nugget lover, offer different brands and shapes, and when on the go, purchase from different restaurants. At home, you can also add mild seasoning or flavors and make variations in sizes and shapes (such as using cookie cutters). Get creative! For some children, the slightest change may cause them to have difficulty eating a preferred food. Constantly changing presentation will aid in preventing this.
Another successful strategy is to separate food into different ‘sections’ on the plate. One can be for one-bite food, and another for a preferred food. Encourage them to have one bite of the non-preferred food before each bite of preferred food.
A fun change in environment or people, such as a picnic or new dinner guests, can help expand food preferences. You can also encourage your child to try a new food in stages, such as smell, touch, kiss, lick, bite, and finally chew and swallow.
Food chaining is another strategy to help expand a child’s food repertoire by linking a preferred food to a new food. By making small changes in a food the child is already eating and gradually progressing to new foods, he is more likely to eat the new variety of food because it’s linked to his preferred food.
Remember – try to keep mealtime fun and involve your child in the process! Creating a battle over foods is no fun, and often the child will win. Consult with your pediatrician if you have nutritional concerns. If you feel there are underlying difficulties, have your child evaluated by a pediatric occupational or speech therapist who specializes in feeding.