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Help! My Child’s A Picky Eater!

Managing Picky Eating at Home

Picky Eating

Julia McKay, MS, OTR/L 

Does your child eat the same five foods all of the time? Do they run from the table or moan and groan when they see the bowl of broccoli on the table for dinner? If this sounds familiar, you are not alone! Picky eating is incredibly common, especially among Complex Learners, and can be tricky to navigate. 

Dr. Kay Toomey established a multidisciplinary feeding therapy program entitled SOS (Sequential-Oral-Sensory) Approach to Feeding. Dr. Toomey’s model suggests that there are 6 primary steps to tasting foods including tolerating the food, interacting with the food (using utensils, napkins, etc.), smelling the food, touching the food, tasting, and finally eating the food. Within these 6 categories, there are in fact 32 incremental steps between the start (the child tolerating being in the same room as the food) and the finish (chewing/swallowing a bite independently).  

While not every child who struggles with picky eating will require moving through all 32 steps prior to tasting something new, it is important to highlight how truly complex the process of eating really is. If you are struggling at home with your picky eater, here are some tips to try at home:

  • Eat dinner together at a table, if possible. The social aspect of mealtime can take away some of the anxiety surrounding new or non-preferred food items. Additionally, parents and siblings are great models for kids! If children repeatedly see others trying foods they might be more inclined to interact with a new or non-preferred food item in some capacity. 
  • Avoid cooking separate meals, if possible. Rather, try presenting at least one preferred food item for your child at every meal. This allows them to feel safe in knowing that there is something on the table being offered that they enjoy and can fill their belly with. This will also allow them to get used to having a preferred and non-preferred food item during meal times. 
  • Keep a consistent mealtime routine as much as possible. Children thrive on consistency. For example, make it a habit to pass all bowls around the table and everyone gets at least one scoop of each food item being offered at mealtime. There is no requirement to eat all of the options but the expectation should be that the food is on their plate if they will tolerate it. Additionally, have your child scrape their plate into the trash at the end of mealtime. This creates an additional opportunity for the child to interact with the food with minimal stress/anxiety. The more positive exposures the better!
  • Make it fun! Contrary to how we may have been raised, exploring/playing with food can make an incredibly positive impact on a child’s willingness to accept novel foods. For example, “This piece of broccoli looks like a tree, can you make a forest on your plate?” or “Can you make a necklace with your noodles?” Sometimes having your child participate in simple meal preparation can help promote some interest in non-preferred foods. They may feel more confident about what to expect at mealtime and even feel a sense of pride for assisting in preparing food for their loved ones. You can also try alternative utensils or shapes to pique their interest (chopsticks, cookie cutters, etc.).
  • Use neutral objective language to discuss your food; “this lemon is very yellow it reminds me of the sun!” or “These peas look like mini green snowballs!”.  With older children, you can take a more scientific approach encouraging your child to be a “food scientist” to explore the properties of the food. Try to avoid saying things like “This food is bad” or “This food is good”.
  • Avoid placing any stress/anxiety on the child/situation. This is arguably the hardest to implement but the most important. When a child is presented with non-preferred or novel foods, it can cause a fight/flight/fright response. This increase in adrenaline suppresses appetite and as a result, does not promote trying new things.
  • Avoid making statements like “Just eat it” or “Just take a bite”. When a child knows that there is no expectation to eat the foods, they will be more willing to interact with them in other ways and promote positive interactions. Similarly, avoid bribing children to eat something with another food item (“If you take a bite I’ll give you ice cream”). This can create negative associations with novel foods that can be avoided. 

Keep in mind that all children are different, and the same approach may not work for everyone. Ultimately, maintaining a positive, interactive, engaging mealtime environment can make all the difference. If you notice significant rigidity or health concerns, consult with your pediatrician and consider pursuing feeding therapy services from a trained occupational therapist or speech pathologist. 

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