Peter Piper Picked a Picky Eater

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“I just don’t think he’s ever going to eat.”

We’ve all experienced the frustration of our children refusing food at one time or another—and if you haven’t, then definitely don’t tell the rest of us because you might find a jealous mob on your doorstep. As an early intervention feeding (and speech) therapist, I specialize in treating delays and disorders that can cause food refusal in toddlers, but my education has led me to several tips that can be used with any kid who refuses to eat more than a handful of foods.

These are especially relevant since the majority of us are now quarantined with our ‘exploring’ eaters, which is naturally going to increase stress levels all around, and may compound the issues surrounding food exploration. If you’re feeling extra salty with your food learner these days, try implementing one of these strategies to ease your stress!

1. Rotate, Rotate, Rotate

It’s extra easy to get caught up in a food jag when your parents haven’t gone to the grocery store in two weeks. Keep a variety of easy foods in your stockpile so you can mix things up at every mealtime. Get creative with your proteins and carbs, offering different types or brands of meat (chicken nuggets, hot dogs, fish sticks, etc), trying a new kind of protein like beans or hummus, or putting some funny-shaped noodles or toast on the plate.

2. Keep the Portion Sizes Small

I recommend providing small (sometimes TINY) portions of nonpreferred foods (ones they might usually refuse) combined with regular portions of a child’s preferred foods. If you’re just wading into the arena of food exploration, start with just one new food on the plate at a time. Pick 1-3 new foods for a given week, and offer at least one at each meal.

3. Keep Your Reactions Neutral.

Dinnertime can often digress into a battle of wills, and in this scenario, there is no winner. If and when your child complains or gets upset about the “new thing” on his plate, acknowledge that “Yes, we’ve got peas as part of our dinner tonight,” and let that be the end of it. Don’t barter for one or two bites; nutrition experts agree that this can sometimes lead to inappropriate “food values” and set a child up for disordered eating in the future. If the food continues to be a distraction, point out a similarity it has to be a food the child likes (“Yeah I see the carrot, isn’t it cool that it’s orange like a Cheeto?”), or think up an animal or TV character that eats the food (“Bunnies LOVE to eat brussel sprouts!”).

4. Play a Food Game Outside of Mealtimes

Homemade edible playdoh, stamping with raw veggies like celery or potatoes, playing “toss the broccoli” (literally just toss the broccoli into a colander and pretend it’s a high-stakes basketball game—your enthusiasm is key here), or having a carrot race using an inclined surface. Think about the shape of the food: if you’re like my husband and have a penchant for deep-frying onion rings, set aside a couple to play “ring around the hot dog” or “Mommy’s new bracelet” (that last one was coined by a kid I had in therapy, and his mom, bless her, wore an onion on her wrist for an entire day to appease her food learner).

5. Try a Dip

You can make almost anything into a dip for kids to use fingers or stick-shaped foods to test it. I love doing dry dips with crackers or fruit loops or even chicken nuggets if they’re crumbly enough. You can also buy freeze-dried fruits and veggies at the store and throw them in the blender for an even healthier dry dip! You can also never go wrong with the classics, ketchup and ranch, but try making your own so your kids get exposure to different ingredients!

6. Don’t Give Up!

It can take literally HUNDREDS of exposures to a single food to coax a child to try it. Parents will often say something like “He doesn’t like blueberries,” and my next question is usually “How many times have you offered it?” Refusal one time or 20 times does not mean they will forever refuse it; kids’ palates and tastes naturally change over time. Every exposure is a success, so if you’ve tried one new food every day for a year and your child hasn’t yet accepted it, you have not failed! You have given her 365 exposures toward an eventual taste or even desire. If it takes 500 exposures for her to accept it, then you’re over halfway there! Keep going! Food waste can be stressful in the meantime, which is one of the reasons I advocate for small portions, even if it’s just a single pea on the plate.

Mealtimes with an eater whose food repertoire is very small can turn even the most patient of us into an emotional monster, so if you hear nothing else from me today, just know you are not alone. Feeding taps into your most innate instinct to nourish your offspring, and when something is off, it can make you question your worth as a mother. I’m here as someone who has seen the long-term effects of these feeding strategies, and I can tell you they WORK. None of them are immediate, but keep the faith and you will see results. Until then, rest in the fact that you are doing your very best for your child. 

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