Tips for Picky Eaters from a Therapist

Tips for Picky Eaters from a Therapist
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Tips for Picky Eaters from a Therapist, Nutrition is extremely important for a growing child, and the regular meals that the child eats should provide all of the necessary components that they need for physical and mental development.

That being said, some children simply will not eat, or if they do, they will only eat certain foods that they like, often ‘junk’ foods that do not give sufficient nutrition to the child.

 

Tips for Picky Eaters from a Therapist

 

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How can a parent deal with this problem without causing daily tantrums at the dinner table? Here are some ways to help your picky eater become comfortable with eating a greater variety of foods.

Make sure your child is following appropriate feeding development

Like any other skill, feeding themselves is a skill that children master gradually through infanthood up to late toddlerhood. See here for a discussion of appropriate feeding milestones by age.

Rule out sensory or motor issues

Children with autism, ADHD, or any other disorders that include sensory issues may have aversions to certain textures or tastes. For example, a child may dislike the feeling of stickiness on their hands or in their mouth and so may show an aversion to any sticky foods like well-cooked rice, idlis, or peanut butter.

Likewise, children with oral motor problems such as those seen in cerebral palsy may be unable to control the intake, chewing, and swallowing of different types of foods adequately and so may refuse to eat them. Also, a child who is teething or has cavities or mouth ulcers would feel some pain when they eat, leading to some acting out during meals. Careful probing into all these and other related factors are a must.

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If you feel your child’s eating problem has signs of being a sensory, motor, or pain related issue, please consult the appropriate specialist (an occupational therapist for sensory aspects, a speech-language and swallowing therapist for motor aspects, dentist for any oral pain, or a physician in case of stomach pain) as soon as possible.

They will be able to work with you and your child to address the root cause of the eating problem.

Ask the child “why?”

For a child who strictly avoids particular foods, there may very well be a valid reason for avoiding them from the child’s point of view.

You can have an open conversation with your child in which you hear out their opinions without offering judgement, giving them a safe space to vent about what their personal problems are with eating these foods.

Remember that it is easier to get information from a child when you ask specific questions, because they child may not have the skills to communicate their issue exactly unless you provide help. For example, if the child tells you that something is “yucky” you can ask them to describe the place they find it yucky, or the temperature, or the taste.

You can also ask them to compare it with different foods in case they are not able to articulate the taste, e.g., is it yucky like a lemon or yucky like a bitter gourd?

If your child has delays in communication, you can use symbols, gestures, facial expressions, or even different emojis to support your conversation. If your child is using an AAC system, then it is certainly necessary to keep the AAC in the conversation!

Experiment with colour, taste, texture, and temperature of foods

Children are very attracted to fun things, so with some creativity you can turn a plain food into a delightful new attractive meal! Using food colouring or cookie cutters can make the food look visually appealing. You can also change it up by offering fruits in a chilled and pureed form, making it resemble ice cream, or cut vegetables into finger sized pieces to look like French fries.

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Let your child help you or let them watch you make these “fun foods”. This can also be a golden opportunity for communication as you make choices about colours, shapes, or portions of food.

Remember to serve portions of these “fun foods” for the entire family—catering exclusively to the picky child will not help them learn to eat!

Structure your meals and increase engagement at mealtimes

Set some ground rules about eating for the entire family. Ensuring that everyone eats together, and if possible, that everyone eats the same food, can help to increase your child’s interest in the meal.

Limit unplanned snacks between meals as much as possible, with scheduled “sit-down” snacks that are also eaten at the table or wherever the family sits to eat together.

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Also make sure that during the meal, the entire family is focused on the meal, not on distractors like phones, tablets, or television. A crucial aspect in learning to like to eat is to be aware of what is being eaten.

This is not possible if the entire attention is on something else and food is simply being taken in automatically.

Let them “explore” food without your coercion

Give your child multiple opportunities to try a new food without making it forced. You can keep it on their plate during meals as often as you would usually prepare the food. Do not attempt to force, plead, or otherwise intervene with your child to make them eat it. Instead, allow them to watch the rest of the family eat the food, and let them understand that eating it is something normal.

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They may not touch the food for many attempts, then slowly start to play with the food, moving it around on their plate, or putting their fingers in it. As they become more comfortable with it, they may feel motivated to take a bite. Patience is required, because forcing your child to eat will not have good outcomes in the long term.

Division of responsibility in feeding

Ellyn Satter, a leading feeding therapist and psychotherapist, came up with the model of Division of Responsibility (sDoR) in feeding, and this evidence-based approach has been proven to work with many picky eaters.

In this model, the responsibility for the child having a meal is divided among the parent and the child—the parent is responsible for what food they provide, when they provide it, and where it is eaten. In turn, the child makes their own decision about whether to eat the food, and if they do, how much to eat.

By following these simple rules, you as the parent can stop worrying about your child’s refusal to eat as long as you have provided it on time and in the place you as a family usually eat. It is the child’s job to decide whether to eat or not.

You can accommodate in some ways by including one or two items that you know your child will enjoy in the regular meal, but you do not have to make a special meal out of those preferred items just for your child. Also, you do not have to pressure them to eat in any way or comment on their agreeing/refusing to eat, because the responsibility of choosing whether and how much to eat rests solely with your child.

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Your child may initially test your system by refusing to eat, but as they begin to see that you are calm and unbothered by their refusal, they will behave better during mealtimes, and so will you.

Eventually, this healthy relaxed atmosphere may lead to their agreeing to try foods that they may have avoided in the past.

Respect your child’s autonomy

This is the underlying tenet that is extremely important to remember as you work with your child. Your child’s intake of food is something that is very personal and depends on their own thoughts and internal states.

Force-feeding, even if it is done with very good intentions of securing the child’s health, can have terrible effects in the long term such as your child not being able to recognise internal signals of hunger and/or fullness which can lead to issues with weight and overall health, and also impact their sense of ownership of their own body—all very important for young children.

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To conclude:

Picky eaters are simply children in the process of teaching themselves how to eat. The knowledge will come from watching the adults around them eating regular, everyday meals. If they experience undue pressure from the adults around them, their self-learning process is disrupted because they will think that eating is too much work.

On the other hand, if they observe that their parents and siblings are eating normally, they will simply assume that this form of eating is something they can also do some day and will work towards this goal on their own. The result will be what every parent of a picky child longs for: a competent eater.

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Tips for Picky Eaters from a Therapist

 

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Tips for Picky Eaters from a Therapist

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