“Many families come in to see us completely stressed out that their child lives on macaroni and cheese or white bread or has never visited with a vegetable,” Rich quips.
Well, have no fear. Here are 10 picky eater hacks to help you and your family broaden your child’s mealtime horizons.
1. It takes 20 tastes or bites over time to develop a “like” for a food.
Ever give your kid a piece of cantaloupe and they look at you like you’ve just fed them fungus? Don’t fret, keep introducing it one taste at a time over the next 8 weeks and notice the taste for that food develop. Also, don’t provide these tastes two days in a row with the same food.
2. Those 20 tastes don’t have to be all in the same form.
Keeping things new and visually pleasing for kids really helps. One time that cantaloupe may be on a fork and another time it may be on an adorable decorative toothpick or mixed into a smoothie.
3. Keep track of tastes.
This keeps you honest. I recommend a sticker board in the kitchen with a picture of the food. Every time a taste has been tried, a sticker (and the date) goes next to the food picture. It will keep track of those 20 bites. I have no problem with prizes for kids once they’ve gotten to 20 with a food item.
Good prizes too, like a trip to Disney World (just kidding).
4. They don’t have to swallow it.
This sounds a bit crazy right?
I should be happy if my child spits out his food? Well, sort of, yes. Some picky eaters are actually sensory defensive, meaning not only does the food stress them out, but it really doesn’t feel right in their mouth. With kids who struggle with sensory defensiveness we play a fun game where we line up food on a table and all they have to do is pick the food up in their mouth and transfer it into a bowl. The next step would be to pick it up, break it with their teeth (aka chew) and then transfer it (aka spit it out) into a bowl. A little gross, I know, but kids are cool with a little grossness.
5. Smoothies are your friend.
Seriously. Like your best friend. I always suggest serving smoothies in opaque cups with a lid and a straw. That way, if your smoothie may have a bit of kale or spinach mixed in, that green color won’t be seen and won’t make your kids run for the hills.
6. Talking about smoothies, start small.
If you start with a pound of kale in a smoothie, well, then, who are we kidding. Here is our favorite smoothie sneak: half a banana, handful of frozen strawberries, vanilla yogurt, some milk and a piece of kale (yes, just a piece to start). Once the smoothie love is triggered we add in maybe a couple baby carrots the next time, or a small handful of spinach. You get the idea.
7. Not every piece of advice works for every kid.
This often comes into play with “distracted” eating. We’ve always been told to sit at a table, eat your food, and only leave when excused. Well, that doesn’t always work. If mealtime has become stressful, if you have an, “I like to move” type kid, or if your child has become totally sensory averse, distracted eating is ok. We want kids to keep trying new foods; that’s the primary goal. So if that means you are handing them a piece of chicken on a fork while they are watching TV or staring at an ipad, who are we to judge? The goal here is to decrease the aversion to foods. Give a child a bite of a new food and then run around them like a crazy person distracting them while they chew and swallow that bite. It may look odd to the parent, but they are pleased when their child eats their first cheese stick.
8. Playdates are where it’s at.
I’m a big fan of peer pressure, the friendly, “My friends are all having fun eating that so maybe it’s not so bad,” kind of peer pressure. I like to recommend 4 kids at a time. You have a bunch of little ones in your basement playing. You bring down a plate of meatballs, cut up cucumbers and grapes all arranged on a plate in a cute pattern, or in pretty cupcake tins. Now the hard part… put it on the floor and walk away. When given no other food choice, your child is muchmore likely to join in on the communal tray.
9. Proteins and raw veggies tend to be big problem areas for kids.
I love to start with hummus (more on the veggies later). I put out a plate of hummus and will let the kids draw a face in it with their finger or use a carrot as a drawing tool. They get points for their drawings. They need to clean off (aka lick) their finger or carrot between drawings. We do this activity in our picky eaters group and they all think it’s hysterical. In terms of veggies, besides carrots and cucumbers, we recommend steaming other kinds first. Load them with butter and a bit of salt. The key is to get kids to start trying in a fun and interactive environment.
10. Duh, consult your doctor.
There may be something else going on and obviously you and your doctor know best. Usually, if your child is on an upward path on the growth chart, you don’t have much to worry about.
We can’t promise your picky eater will transform their palate overnight, but you will now be on your way to increasing your child’s food repertoire. Bon appetit!
Andrea Rich is the Executive Director of A2 Therapy Work, a private pediatric center in Ann Arbor offering speech, occupational, physical therapy and tutoring services.
A2 Therapy Works offers weekly “picky eater” lunch bunch on Wednesdays and Thursdays.