As a speech language pathologist with experience in feeding therapy, I was surprised, frustrated and maybe mildly mortified to find myself stuck with a picky eater. Following three serious hospitalizations in his first year of life my second child had found comfort in controlling his food intake. No amount of homemade baby food or feeding strategies were going to make him budge. Now at the age of two with some usable language in our tool belt we are trying some new things to expand his sweet little palate. If you are harboring a tiny picky eater under your roof as well, some of these activities and ideas may help you too! (As a side note: if you are ever concerned about the safety or severity of your child’s food intake, please talk to their pediatrician about the possible need for a consult with a feeding therapist).
- Explore food at its source. I am fortunate enough to have a mother-in-law that has planted a huge herb garden in our yard and a mother with a healthy vegetable garden at her house. My picky eater has been spotted tasting mint leaves and nibbling on a fresh picked green bean from said gardens. I don’t know if it was the fresh air and sunshine, or the fascination with plucking something edible off a stem, but I was blown away when I saw him doing this! If you don’t have access to a garden you can take a trip to a Farmer’s Market to chat with the vendors about their farms and taste some samples or take an adventure to visit a farm or orchard to pick the freshest fruits and veggies in season.
- Shop together. Now that I’ve been spoiled by it, it is incredibly hard for me to give up grocery delivery, but I periodically try to take my son with me to the grocery store to linger in the produce section. We look, smell, touch and talk about the things we see. I let him choose one new thing to try each time. If he’s picked it, he’s much more willing to try it!
- Include your littles in food prep! This can be a pain, but a worthwhile one. You can let them sort, wash and even chop when they are a little older. For safety, I recommend having your child wear some protective gloves when starting out. You may also want a set of kid-friendly knives. I don’t let my two-year-old chop just yet, but my 4-year-old does great with these knives and I let the younger one slice bananas and other soft things with a butter knife so that he feels like he is participating.
- Show them your secrets. And by secrets, I mean how you hide incorporate healthy food into things they like to eat. Let that picky eater’s eyes see you grating the zucchini or carrots you mix into those delicious muffins. Have them throw handfuls of spinach into the blender for their favorite green smoothie. Whisper the secret ingredient (mushrooms, carrots, whatever it is) for grandma’s famous spaghetti sauce in their ear. I’m pretty sure my kids aren’t the only ones that like to get in on a good secret ?
- Play with your food. Yes, you heard me right (and don’t cringe too hard until you try it). Playing with food is a great way for kids to be exposed to and accept new smells, textures and tastes. It takes a lot of pressure off them if they know all they have to do is touch the food. This can be as messy as finger painting with purees or as neat as feeding toy dinosaurs raw broccoli.
- Lower your expectations. Most of us consider success at the dinner table to be a bite of something green chewed AND swallowed. Did you know that swallowing takes place in 5 phases with the pre-oral phase coming first? The pre-oral phase is basically the interaction we have with food before we put it in our mouth. What does it look and smell like? What temperature is it? Does it feel soft or hard when I shove my fork into it? Some kiddos cannot even tolerate sitting next to certain foods. For that picky eater a chewed and swallowed bite is far away and just letting the “yucky” food item sit on his plate through a whole meal is a win! The starting point for your picky eater may be touching a certain food, smelling it, licking it, or biting it and spitting it out. Go slowly, be persistent and celebrate each step!
If you are interested in more information on this topic, I recommend reading “Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater: A stage-by-stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating” by Nimali Fernando MD MDH and Melanie Potock MA CCC-SLP.
Cheers to all your future food excursions with your picky (and even not so picky) eaters!