Parents of children with picky eating habits have a daily struggle during mealtimes, especially at dinner! Food battles abound, from what foods will be eaten to where they’ll be eaten, while parents wonder how much food they should encourage. Children develop clever negotiation tactics: “Can I have some chips instead?” “Yogurt pouch please?” “Spaghetti Bolognese… disgusting!” Stress levels get higher, and picky eating often impacts the parent-child relationship.

We understand that fussy eating can be a highly emotional, fraught experience that confronts you at every snack time or meal, which can mean up to 6 times per day! It can be hard to change eating habits. Grow On Children’s OT can offer you the support you need to create desirable eating habits in your household.

So, how can picky eating be managed to make mealtimes more enjoyable for all of the family? We use a variety of methods when working with families where the children are picky eaters. Here are 5 of the best ways to address low-level fussy eating.

Division of Responsibility

Image by Ellyn Satter – Author of Child of Mine ©

  1. The Division of Responsibility:
    Set up the expectation from when of who is responsible for what during family meals. Parents are responsible for what’s on the menu, for when meals are served and for where meals are eaten. Children are responsible for whether to eat each food offered and for how much to eat.
    What food should you offer a picky eater? It’s important to always offer at least 2 or 3 foods that your child enjoys and will eat. Additionally you might choose to offer the foods that you will be eating, but which they are less likely to eat.  This can relieve mealtime pressure as your child eats at least some of what’s on their plate.
  1. The Learning Plate: While setting up the division of responsibility, your child may have trouble understanding that there is no expectation that they eat all of the foods on their plate. If your child has major reactions when you offer less preferred foods or new foods, such as running away from the table, hiding under the table, or refusing to come to the table at all, then “The Learning Plate” may be just what you need.

    The Learning PlateThe learning plate is a small plate adjacent to your child’s main plate where you place new or less favoured foods. You can say things to your child such as, “I see that you are scared when the carrots are on your plate. I am putting them on the learning plate so we can look at the carrots and learn about them, and you do not have to eat them.”As your child gets used to the idea of the learning plate, you can encourage your child to move the foods themselves with their fingers or fork, which gives them the experience of touching the food and getting closer to it while they feel in control.
  1. Exposure, exposure, exposure: Even if you think your child won’t eat a certain food, continue to offer it, but without pressure and without the expectation that your child put it in their mouth.Plate of FoodResearch shows that the best predictor of whether a child will try a food is how comfortable they are with the food – if they’ve seen it before on their own plate, on a parent’s plate, or if they’ve seen a sibling or other family member eating the food. While the easiest way to get children to eat foods is mixing foods in with others (pureed vegetables in pasta sauce, smoothies, etc) often the best way to encourage children to actually become comfortable with that food is by seeing the full form of the food on a plate – looking at it, smelling it, or even touching it.
  1. Food Play: You can improve your child’s comfort around foods outside of mealtimes. Set up food play activities like painting with fruits and vegetables, having tea parties for teddies and dollies, and ‘guessing the smell’ activities.Food PlayThere are all sorts of food games that don’t involve actually eating a food and which can increase your child’s comfort around, and interaction with, foods and which eventually lead to your child being more comfortable with trying to taste different foods. Our occupational therapists here at Grow On Children’s OT are happy to help you develop activities and games specific to your child’s age, food preferences, and your goals for your child’s diet.
  1. The End Of “If, Then”: Avoid using food rewards for other foods, like “if you eat your broccoli, then you can have a chocolate egg!” While these strategies may work for children without picky eating challenges, parents of picky eaters often find them unsuccessful and find that they may frustrate the situation even more.The “If, Then” approach can be problematic longer term, too. Research shows that although this strategy sometimes has the immediate result of the child eating the less preferred food, they actually set up cognitive pathways in the brain that teach the child “broccoli = bad, chocolate = good” which results in less internal motivation to try the less preferred food.

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Achieving mealtime success

With a bit of time and experimentation, the 5 methods outlined here can make a real difference, so mealtimes will be better for everyone. The occupational therapists here at Grow On Children’s OT would be pleased to provide you with additional effective strategies to address your child’s individual needs.

A final note

It’s important to note that if your child’s eating is more extreme than just a little picky, for example cutting out entire dietary groups, we highly recommend that you seek advice from appropriate health professionals. This may include GP’s or pediatricians, occupational therapists, dietitians, psychologists, and speech pathologists.

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