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Seven Strategies for Picky Eaters

Not many kids get excited about broccoli. Or ask to have spinach quiche at their birthday party. Or choose the crudité over potato chips.

But some kids are pickier than others when it comes to food. They only eat chicken nuggets, or mac and cheese, and maybe only a particular brand of these. They never try new foods or avoid entire food groups. Maybe they even panic when presented with something new, or tantrum when they can’t get the food they are used to.

Complex Learners have a number of issues that can manifest in struggles with eating, falling on a continuum from picky eaters to problem eaters. As a parent, you may be concerned about your child’s health (how much nutritional value is there in Gold Fish®?), or social behaviors (how can they go to a friend’s birthday party if they melt down over the pizza and wrong kind of lemonade?).

Rachel Best, MS, CC-SLP, owner of Small Steps Therapy: Speech, Language and Feeding Services, in Providence, Rhode Island, recently spoke to parents at The Wolf School and offered insight and advice for feeding your picky eater. Here’s some of the information and ideas she shared:

  • Complex Learners are more likely to have trouble eating than other kids because they experience many of the traits that trigger difficulties, including oral motor, fine motor, sensory and behavioral challenges. Understanding the variables that effect your child’s difficulties with food is a first step in approaching the problem and helps you recognize what strategies you can work on with your child and when you might need outside help.
  • Anxiety decreases appetite. If a child feels pressure or senses you are upset, his/her anxiety will create even less of a desire to eat. Breathe, stay calm and encourage your child to engage in relaxation techniques too.
  • Getting kids involved in meal preparation can help. Make food fun and let children create some of the meal in their own way. Make a face on a mini pizza. Design a fruit kabob. Give foods a cool name. If your child is imaginative, let them have at it!
  • Use positive language and feedback. Saying, “You can take another bite,” in a neutral manner, instead of asking, “Can you please just take one more bite?” keeps the power struggle and frustration out of your language. Reinforce positive behavior, like trying a new food.
  • Eat with your child so you can be a good role model. Try to have meals at the same time each day. Complex Learners do best with structure so create a mealtime routine that works for you and your family.
  • Let your child play with their food! This doesn’t mean poking at grilled chicken with a fork and saying “I hate it!” But can they touch it with their fingers, balance it on their nose, lick it, or smell it? Encourage positive behavior that moves your child closer to feeling comfortable with a food.
  • Try food chaining to expand your child’s diet by introducing new foods based on his/her preferences while changing just one small component at a time. This technique offers small changes in textures, flavors, temperature, and appearance over time to a food your child likes. If it’s chicken nuggets, you can start with different shapes of the same brand, then move to different brands, then to a cutlet, and maybe to the chicken you prepare. This method requires patience as your child may need to try each change up to 30 times. There are many books and articles on food chaining out there to help you get started. And you can always talk to a professional to get specific input on your child.

The chicken nuggets may be around for a while, but as time goes by you may have success introducing other foods and enjoy mealtimes as a family. Have you tried any strategies that have helped with your picky eater? Let us know!

Learn more about Rachel Best, MS, CC-SLP at her website: http://www.smallstepstherapyri.com

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Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.

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