Get clear on a plan that will actually help your child move forward to taste new foods and make your job of feeding them easier!
Before becoming a parent, we all dream about what our child will be like and fantasize about the parenting strategies we will use. We might even think things like, “I’ll never do this” or “I won’t ever let my child do that.” It’s all picture perfect when we imagine it in our heads!
Fast forward and your child is here! They are the love of your life and you would do ANYTHING to keep them safe, help them grow, and give them a bright future. Challenges start popping up, and no matter what you said you would or would not do, you act in the moment! Early parenting years are all about survival and getting by moment to moment.
As new parents fly by the seat of their pants and their child enters new stages, it’s easy to get confused, make exceptions, and be totally caught off guard!
Picky eating is definitely one of those things that catch parents totally off guard and they find themselves doing things they swore they never would! It all stems from the fact that you care so deeply about your child’s well-being and you want them to EAT! But while you are making sure they get something in their belly, their pickiness gets worse and worse. One day you are left wondering, how did this happen and how do you help your picky eater try new food!?
The Origins of Picky Eating
Picky eating is almost always caused by multiple factors. Often parents feel like it is their fault that they ended up in this tricky situation, but in reality, there isn’t one single thing that landed you here. Kids can become picky eaters due to negative associations around food/eating (even if resolved), sensory challenges, difficulty chewing or swallowing, low muscle tone, gastrointestinal problems, and developmental stages, just to name a few.
Once these issues send a child down the path of picky eating, a parent’s response is often what causes picky eating to get even worse, stay the same, or get better. Even if a child has resolution in their medical issues, parent behavior around feeding is a big indicator in a child’s long-term eating habits.
So, if you are here because you have a picky eater, it’s important you don’t blame yourself! Every parent is doing the best they can with what they know. Plus, it’s very likely that there are many other factors contributing to your child’s picky eating. What’s most important to remember is: there is a lot in your control and you can focus on these things to help your child make progress! There are plenty of things you can do to help your picky eater try new food!
Setting the Stage to Help Your Picky Eater Try New Food
After working with many parents, I’ve developed a step by step process that walks parents through addressing the parts of picky eating that are in their control. I’ve laid it all out in the Mastering Mealtimes Membership to support you on your journey to expanding your picky eaters’ tastes!
Here’s a peak into what the process looks like, so you can jump into some changes and get started right now:
- History – It’s likely that your history around food is impacting how you feed your child. Maybe you desperately want them to eat healthier foods than you did as a child, so you limit the “junk food” you bring into your house. Or perhaps you had a parent that was very strict about cleaning your plate and eating all the vegetables you were served. This is an unpleasant memory for you, and you don’t want to repeat this experience for you child. For this reason, you try hard to give them what they like and you know they will eat, even if that means almost making two different meals to please everyone in the family. Whatever the case is, we are driven by our past experiences. The best way to understand what you are doing now and move forward with effective strategies, is to take a look at your past.
- Structure and Boundaries – It’s important in helping your child learn to accept new foods that you have a supportive eating environment for them. For kids, support comes from predictable routines and boundaries. Even though from a parent’s perspective it feels like they are pushing back against these, they are actually exactly what a child needs to feel safe. This means that eating times need be a safe place where there isn’t pressure to take tastes, but the opportunity to do so. It also means that you have a feeding schedule that helps your child come to the table hungry, so they are motivated to try new things. Last, it means that it’s the parent’s job (not the child’s) to decide what food is served to support the whole family in meeting the needs of nutrition, enjoyment, and variety.
- Engagement – After the foundation is laid for happy, calmer mealtimes, the true work of expansion begins. There are many opportunities for parents to not just expose their child to a variety of foods, but to promote engagement with the food. Any engagement such as touching, cooking, smelling, and licking, move a child one step closer to actually eating! The opportunities to help kids engage with food in fun and low-pressure ways are endless. In fact, it can sometimes be overwhelming to even get started. Taking a small amount of time to plan is one of the best ways to ensure that you’ll start implementing changes and see progress.
Making a Plan to Engage Your Child with New Foods
Having a plan with clear actionable steps is important to making changes. It’s often easiest to start with a task you are already doing, and add the new task onto it. Planning for food engagement can logically, easily, and quickly happen at the same time you are planning meals to serve each week and food to get at the grocery store. You’ll be all set to add necessary foods to your grocery list, ensuring you have what you need for exposure and engagement. It can also be really helpful to write down the engagement you’ll do with your child, including the day and time you’ll do it, on your written meal plan. The clearer you are in the plan, the more likely you will be accountable and following through.
Engaging a Picky Eater with New Food During Meal Prep
While there are many ways you can engage your child with food, including, food chaining, sensory experiences, food play and mealtime interactions, helping in the kitchen has one of the lowest barriers to starting. You already have to make food for your family! So, why not have your child help, and get two things done at once!?
Invite your child into the kitchen to help with even just one task. Keep it fun and positive; in short, make it a time they really enjoy! With time, start to have them do more. As much as possible, get them directly touching food. Approach their interactions with a mindset of exploration. Use your senses to explore each food and even if they don’t participate, watching you still helps them learn. The goal is for them to learn about the food as much as possible, making them more comfortable around it, and thus, feeling safer to eventually taste and eat it.
It might feel hard to believe that you can help your picky eater try new food, but I promise you, there is hope! With consistent efforts to build their comfort around new foods, they can advance to trying new foods and (gasp) even eventually liking them! Get started by implementing these early steps consistently and get support on your journey. Check out the Mastering Mealtimes Membership to get the support you need with helping your child expand.
Kim Slack is a Registered Dietitian and founder of On Your Table LLC. She coaches parents on feeding strategies and parenting styles that support children to expand the foods they eat. Kim has helped many families have happier, calmer mealtimes and grow competent eaters. Kim also has 2 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.