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Simple Feeding Strategies for Picky Eaters

Simple Feeding Strategies for Picky Eaters

Our occupational therapists help children master a wide range of activities so they can succeed in their daily routine. One of the most common areas we are consulted about is feeding. If your child is a picky eater who limits themselves to certain foods, there are many strategies to help them expand their palate.

Try a Variety of Flavors and Textures

The first step is exposing your child to food with a variety of tastes, textures, and temperatures, even if they don’t immediately like them. With very young children, foods should start smooth, and can gradually expand to mashed and then ground or finely chopped. As their chewing skills develop, introduce more solid foods. A child may prefer soft foods or food with a certain flavor, but once you find something they like it’s important not to limit them. It can take more than ten exposures before someone decides they like a food, so keep trying even if they’re disinterested. They’ll never eat something you don’t offer.

Give Kids Choices About What to Eat

Instead of limiting your child to foods you know they like, offer new or previously disliked foods as well. You should prepare a balanced meal for your family, pairing new foods with familiar favorites, and let them choose what they will or won’t eat. Since they may look to you for guidance, be sure to speak positively about the food and describe what it tastes like in an appealing way. You can also ask them questions, like, “Do you want something smooth or do you want something crunchy?”

Make Eating Fun

Children learn through play. Now is not the time to worry about their table manners. Encourage them to touch, smell, or lick new foods, which can be early steps toward eating something. You can arrange the food into funny faces on their plate or cut foods into creative shapes. The goal is to make mealtime fun instead of frustrating.

Create a Mealtime Routine

Routines are comforting to children and can help them learn, so create a mealtime routine that fosters trying new things. Instead of letting your child graze all day, we recommend setting regular mealtimes and cutting off snacks at least an hour before each meal. That will make them more likely to be hungry enough at dinner to try new foods. Encourage your entire family to eat together so your child can watch you eat. Be sure to speak positively about each food–why would your child want to eat broccoli if you say that it’s gross? Try to eliminate anything that might distract from eating. That means putting away toys and turning off the TV or tablet.

Take it Slowly

Some children have extremely strong sensory reactions to certain foods. If a child won’t touch a food, they certainly won’t eat it. Some of these aversions can be overcome in steps. An occupational therapist will work with your child to gradually help them tolerate being near the food, then interact with the food, smell the food, touch the food, taste the food, and eventually eat the food.

Don’t Force It

The more pressure you put on your child to eat a certain food, the more likely they are to push back. Toddlers are just starting to assert their independence, and it’s easy to lose patience if they refuse. This can make mealtimes frustrating for both of you. Instead, try to make meals more pleasant by taking off the pressure. Instead of telling them they have to stay at the table until they’ve eaten something or cajoling them to take one more bite, try saying, “you can eat it when you’re ready.” This may feel strange, but children are more likely to try new foods when adults aren’t insisting they have to. Be sure to offer at least one food they like as well as several they don’t usually eat. 

In Summary

Remember, it may take up to ten exposures before a child decides they like a food. Having a picky child can be frustrating, but patience and persistence is key. An occupational therapist can help determine why your child is limiting their food choices and teach you specific strategies to overcome those objections. Early intervention services, including occupational therapy, are free in Pennsylvania and help children develop the skills they need to thrive.

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