Staci Henderson, M.S.CCC-SLP
As a pediatric feeding therapist, I have many families who seek my services when they are at the end of their rope with their child’s picky eating. Often the families are frustrated that the mealtime has become a source of frustration, anxiety and not enjoyable for the family. Over the years, I have attended many conferences, trainings and learned a few tips from my own experience with my children that have proven successful with helping families bring back joy in their mealtimes. Here are my top 5 tips for creating peaceful mealtimes.
1. Stay away from power struggles.
This is essential to creating peaceful mealtimes. As anyone who has been around a two-year old knows, the power struggles at this age are difficult! Young children often use food to control their environment and assert independence. One way to avoid power struggles is to adopt the concept of ‘Division of Responsibility' in your feeding routines. The Division of Responsibility concept was pioneered in 1986 by Ellyn Satter , a feeding expert, author, dietitian and family therapist. Here are the principles of her concept:
YOUR JOB is to decide when, where and what foods are offered (as long as you include something your child can eat.)
YOUR CHILD'S JOB is to decide whether and how much to eat
It sounds simple, but it can be difficult to implement at first. When you are in the midst of a power struggle over food, ask yourself, "What is my job?" and, "Am I allowing my child to do his job?"
2. Stop the grazing and have a set feeding schedule.
When I meet families for an initial feeding assessment, I ask what their child’s current feeding schedule is at home. Often this question is met with a blank stare. Many families today don’t have set schedules for when their children eat, and so they are free to go in and out of the kitchen, asking for snacks just a few minutes after lunch or dinner. For children to learn to taste and enjoy a variety of foods, they need to be able to be a little hungry. In the book, “Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater”, authors Potock and Fernando, M.D. have developed a hunger schedule to teach parents how to divide the day into ‘eating times’ and ‘growing times’. Having a set feeding schedule allows children to have time between meals/snacks to feel hungry and become interested in eating a variety of new foods.
3. Change It Up!
With children who are reluctant to try new foods, I suggest presenting previously rejected foods in a new way. Young children often reject foods previously eaten, but it is important to keep these foods on your list even if your child has refused it before. Many times a child will refuse a food one day, and then happily eat it the following day. Your child may come back to try a previously rejected food the next day, week or month.
There are many ways to ‘change up’ the way you present new foods to children. The change could be as simple as experimenting with temperature of the foods, the size of the foods or even the shape of the foods. Some questions to ask yourself could be:
- Does my child prefer room temperature fruits or cold fruits?
- Does my child prefer cooked vegetables or raw?
- Does my child prefer savory foods for breakfast or sweet foods?
- What dips does my child like that I can use to help him try new foods?
- Does my child prefer bland foods or spicy/high flavored foods?
- Does my child get overwhelmed with large portions of new foods?
Try cutting sandwiches into small strips or squares instead of offering a full sandwich or cutting carrots into small round circles versus longer pieces, try frozen peas instead of cooked peas. Present food unassembled verses assembled (for taco night have separate bowls for the ingredients for example).
I once had a client who appeared interested in trying bananas but would gag at the texture of a peeled banana. I suggested to his caregivers that we try a cold banana and it was successful! This one small change in temperature allowed the texture of the banana to be less squishy and was tolerable enough for my client to eat it!
4. Address any sensory component
Many of my clients have sensory integration dysfunction which limits what foods they are able to tolerate/accept. Children with sensory integration dysfunction often have aversion to smells, will avoid certain textures (avoiding wet foods like applesauce for instance), or will only eat one particular texture of food. I want to encourage parents of children with sensory challenges that yes you can be very successful with increasing their food intake, it just might take a bit longer to get there. Occupational therapists often have had significant training in working with children with sensory aversions and I often recommend clients who aren’t receiving occupational therapy to get an assessment to see how OT can be beneficial to their child.
I always start with food play for any child that is showing aversion to smells, or certain textures. Food play is essential because it allows for children to safely explore the smell, sight, and feel of foods without any pressure to taste or eat the foods. As Melanie Potock, Feeding Expert and Speech Pathologists explains: “If a child won’t tolerate touching a food with his hands, he won’t tolerate it in his mouth either. “
Examples of food play could be: having the child place farm animals in ‘mud’ (mixture of applesauce and cocoa or chocolate pudding), playing with sensory bins with food items: (dried beans, cooked noodles, whipped cream, rice etc.) and encouraging your child to help prepare meals for the family. Even if you are cooking food your child doesn’t eat, exposing your child to non-preferred foods by seeing, touching and smelling while having fun in the kitchen with you creates a positive association with new foods!
For a child with severe sensory aversions I recommend parents start by giving their child small tasks with non-preferred foods (hand the food to mom/dad, picking up a piece of food that you ‘accidently’ dropped, putting non preferred foods into the shopping cart at the store, watching videos of animals eating foods online (bunnies eating carrots, etc). The more positive associations a child has with food, the more likely they are to want to try new foods on their own terms.
By the way- Pinterest has some great ideas for sensory play with food. And remember: any type of food play should always be given with close supervision from an adult.
5. Focus on Fun at Mealtimes!
This is probably the most difficult tip for parents to grasp. For many families the stress of a picky eater consumes the mealtime, and it becomes something they dread. Take the focus off of what and how much your picky eater is (or isn’t) consuming at the table and instead focus on fun. Here are a few ideas for making mealtimes fun:
- Have a picnic – outside or even inside!
- Eat dessert first, before the meal
- Set the table with candles, and special napkins, dim the lights
- Try eating with chopsticks
- Allow your picky eater to choose the meal for a night
- Turn music on to lighten the mood during meals
- Have lively conversation! Have a ‘joke of the day’ ready to tell, tell funny stories about your children when they were younger, bring some pictures to the table and retell family stories. For older children, I love to send clients home with ‘Would you rather…” questions to ask at mealtimes.
- Avoid talk that focuses on your child’s eating during the meal.
Parenting comes with many challenges and having a picky eater can be a big one for families to have to endure. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t overcome picky eating. Instead of fighting, giving in or feeling guilty try one of these strategies and see what changes you notice around your table! These strategies can help your child learn about their own hunger cues, take the stress out of mealtimes, and can even help your picky eater learn to love new foods. If these strategies don’t seem to work, or if you are concerned about your child’s nutrition or weight then please talk to your child’s pediatrician and consider getting therapy from a trained feeding professional.
Staci Henderson, M.S.CCC-SLP is the owner of The Speech Nest, a pediatric private practice specializing in speech, language and feeding therapy serving clients in McKinney and surrounding communities. She can be reached via email at Staci@SpeechNest.com , through her website www.SpeechNest.com or via phone (469) 730-6378.