“Please. Just take one bite. One little bite.”
How many times have you uttered those words? How many times were you met with a “No!”? The more you beg, the more your child refuses. Does this scenario sound familiar?
Taking a bite is actually a much bigger demand than we may realize. Imagine somebody sitting in front of you with a food that doesn’t look at all appetizing, begging you to just take a bite. You likely wouldn’t want to do it.
Here are two tips for what to do instead:
1. Offer choices about how to try a new food: Do you want to touch it or try a lick of it? This still gives your child control of the situation but also doesn’t allow for a “No!” answer.
Be specific with your choices. Instead of open ended questions (“what do you want to try?”) give two very specific choices (“Do you want to try the turkey or cheese next?”)
2. Don’t wait for a bite before you praise your child: It’s easy to get stuck on wanting to see your child take a bite and swallow food. However, this is a big ask and can bring a lot of pressure into mealtime. If you allow an easier interaction such as touching or smelling a new food, you’ll be able to reward your child doing something new and keep mealtime happy! In a future post, we’ll talk about how to work your way up to bites.
Here are some other examples of choices you can provide to give your child control while still encouraging interactions with food:
It’s all over Google and Pinterest: “Smart Ways to Sneak Vegetables in Your Child’s Food,” “Foolproof Ways to Sneak Veggies into Kids Food,” “100+ Hidden Veggie Recipes,” “15 Foods You Can Sneak Vegetables into.” Recipes are named for this practice: “Sneaky Pasta Sauce,” “Hidden Veggie Sloppy Joes,” “Hidden Veggie Smoothie.” There are even cookbooks devoted to successfully hiding vegetables in kid’s food. It’s one of the most common pieces of advice parents give each other when commiserating about picky eaters who refuse to eat vegetables. However, this common practice of sneaking foods is problematic. Here are three reasons why:
Instead of sneaking foods into your child’s food, here are some things you can do:
Try these tips to make trying healthy foods fun and enjoyable for both you and your child!
My daughter will only eat one or two slices of a raw apple but will eagerly scarf down an entire apple when it's steamed. Steaming the apple requires minimal effort and makes it soft and a little more sweet. These are the simple steps I take:
1. Core and slice - don't worry about he peels, they come off easily once it's steamed.
2. Place the slices in a steamer basket and put the basket in a saucepan with a few inches of water (don't let the water touch the apples).
3. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Let it boil until the apples are tender and can be pierced easily with a fork (about 5 minutes). You can very gradually keep them in for less time to get your child used to a harder texture and work up to raw apples.
4. Let it cool and peel the skin if desired. I encouraged my daughter to peel the skin herself to give her some extra exposure with it and because it's an awesome fine motor task! Eventually I will encourage her to try some bites with the skin on.
With the exception of the one slice she reluctantly gave up to her baby brother (another bonus - good for babies!) she devoured an entire apple in a couple minutes and asked for more!
Research studies tell us that children that have food neophobia (the fear of new foods) are also children that are sensitive to tactile stimuli. In other words, they often don't like to get their hands messy. We also know that a child who is unlikely to want to touch something, is even less likely to want to eat it. So, what do we do? Create repeated positive tactile experiences without the pressure of eating. Here is an example of a fairly easy activity: digging for treasure in Jello!
You can suspend items in jello in a couple different ways:
1. Make a batch, let it harden, put items in, add another batch on top
2. Make a batch, wait until it starts to thicken and push items into the middle (I used this method here)
I used toy airplanes and gummies in our dig for treasure, but you can use whatever your child is into. Or, if they love jello, put in new foods that you want to expose them to such as fruit! Then you can encourage them to take bites, lick the jello off, or even just expose them to touching the fruit by digging it out of the jello.
Jello is a fun tool because it also is a great exposure to smells. However, keep that in mind if your child is sensitive to smell!
You can also push items into the jello while you dig for an extra texture to touch - we did cereal.
Encourage different interactions: smells, licks, tastes. It's also a good idea to keep wipes or a washcloth on hand and tell your child that they can use wipe it off at any point if it becomes uncomfortable. Remember, this should be a positive experience with no pressure!
Here are a number of different utensils you can use to make trying new foods a little more fun. Mixing up something as simple as a utensil also teaches a child that change is OK and trying something new can be a positive experience.
1. Toothpick: not only is it fun for kids to spear things, but it is also a great fine motor task. In addition to use toothpicks just as utensils, you can make mini "fruit kebab" skewers. Get the colored toothpicks and incorporate some sorting and counting into your mealtime as well! You can also look for the plastic cocktail toothpicks at the grocery store or the umbrella ones that go in drinks. Lots of possibilities!
2. Tongs: A simple search on Amazon will show you a wide array of mini tongs perfect for little hands grasping food. You can go with the basic colorful ones or more exciting ones with little hands on the ends.
3. The Nuk Brush is often used for oral motor sensory input and has been shown effective in the research in increasing food consumption by using it to distribute food in the mouth.
4. A Chinese soup spoon. Use it on the big side as intended or flip it around to practice drinking from the handle side.
5. Other foods! The possibilities are endless here. Pretzels to dip into different new foods or spear food with, banana to lick yogurt off of, and so on. The beauty of this one is that you can use a new food as a utensil to introduce different textures without the pressure of eating. For example, if your child loves yogurt and you would like them to eat apples, use the apple as a utensil to eat the yogurt with! The exposure to touching and licking food off the apple can add to future willingness to try the apple itself.
Even just switching up colors and shapes of the utensils you are using can make a huge difference. What else can you think of?
Picky eating is a common concern for parents of preschoolers. Both in my experience as a consultant and in reading the research literature on food selectivity, it is clear that parents gravitate towards a few common feeding "solutions" with their picky eaters. These are outlined below as well as ideas for more effective, long-term solutions.
Common Solution #1: Offering the same foods in the same environments
You want your child to try new foods, but after a long day, who needs that added stress? Parents often stick to what they know works. Do you find yourself making the same two foods for dinner on the regular? Or allowing your child to eat in their spot in front of the TV just to get some calories in them? No need to be embarrassed - you're certainly not alone.
Why it's a problem:
Every time you allow your child to have the same food in the same environment, you continue to build a history that this is how it will be. Every time makes it that much harder to change it in the future.
What to do instead:
You don't need to make drastic changes. Think of little changes you can make just to teach flexibility to start. Change one little thing about the meal every day. At first, it doesn't even have to be about trying new foods. Some examples include:
- Cut the grilled cheese sandwich a different way
- Move the chair where your child sits
- Use different plates or utensils
- Add food coloring to foods to make them look different without changing the taste
- Add something different (but preferred) onto the plate
Essentially, you are teaching your child that meals don't need to stay the same but that change isn't stressful. If you jump right into offering a totally different meal, you show your child that change is stressful. This way, you can have fun with it while working your way up to trying new foods. Make sure you praise tolerance of change!
Common Solution #2: Allowing "drive-by" grazing
Your child won't eat at the table with the family, so in desperation to get something in them you allow them to come grab bites in between other activities such as playing.
Why it's a problem:
Your child learns that this is what mealtimes look like. The social and communication aspects of mealtime are lost, and eventually it will be very difficult to change this habit.
What to do instead:
Encourage sitting at mealtime without the pressure of eating food. Start with just a few minutes. Many families will start fun family traditions such as sharing exciting parts of the day, singing a song, or playing a game. At first, have your child come sit down for a couple minutes and make that time as fun as possible. Gradually introduce a plate with food and model eating while enjoying the social aspect of mealtime.
Consider the expectations for your child. If you tend to have a long, social family mealtime, make sure the expectations for your child are realistic and developmentally appropriate. A good rule of thumb is to expect 2-5 minutes per a child's year of age. So a four year old may be able to sit still at the table for between 8 - 20 minutes.
Common Solution #3: Feeding your child at a separate time from the rest of the family
Feeding your picky eater is a stressful experience, so you want to get it over with before the rest of your family eats.
Why it's a problem:
Your child becomes accustomed to mealtime being solely about food consumption and you miss out on family social time.
What to do instead:
First, this requires a philosophical change to view mealtime as about more than just consuming food. Even if you are initially focusing on feeding your child separately, still have him come sit with the family (as discussed in #2 above). You can also offer highly preferred foods for sitting with the family and work on introducing new foods at the other times.
Keep in mind that the common "solutions" outlined above are short-term fixes. It may be easy to just give in and make a special meal or let your child graze all day instead of join mealtimes. It may take away some stress. However, you are creating a long-term problem. Long-term solutions will take much more time and will have to happen in very small steps. As I've written before, celebrate and praise the small successes!
Photos used under creative commons by sung hoon Choi,
Did you ever think you'd see those two words together? We had a lot of fun with this simple broccoli activity! In a previous post on mealtime as a sensory experience, I mentioned using condiments to enhance the taste of foods. Here's an example of how it can be done to encourage children to explore different tastes and taste combinations.
Broccoli Painting with Condiments
Broccoli (your paintbrush): I steamed a bag of frozen but use whatever style you like
Condiments (your paint): I just used what I found in my fridge - ketchup, mustard, sour cream, and soy sauce. I was looking for a variety of colors
Plates (your paint palette)
Paper (your canvas)
This is really an open ended activity. I explained to the children and modeled how they can use the broccoli as the paintbrush and we talked about the colors of "paint." I gave them the option to dip a finger into the different condiments to see how they tasted before we began. They were happy to do that and we talked about the different tastes and which ones they thought might taste best with broccoli.
Then, we just had at it, stamping and painting (and eating) away. I encouraged smelling and licking the broccoli and they ended up taking the next step and devouring each piece after painting with it.
We mixed colors and flavors, talked about what tasted good together and what didn't, and created some neat art that they were pretty proud of!
Did you try this activity? Have questions or feedback? Please feel free to comment below!
We often make the mistake about focusing only on the actual consumption of food when feeding our children. It is important to remember that mealtime is a sensory experience involving all the senses. Here's how:
Visual: Presentation matters. For example, which of the meals below looks most appealing? Chefs are specially trained in creating visually appealing meals. The way you present a food to a child makes a difference. Think about favorite colors, combinations of food on the plate, and the dishes used to make your child want to come sit at the table.
Tactile: If you don't want to touch it, why would you want to eat it? Think about this when presenting food to your child. For example, holding a banana in the peel is a very different tactile experience than picking up slices of banana. You may present some utensils as an option or first just get your child used to touching a new food before asking them to taste it.
Smell: Good smell leads to willingness to taste. This is a conditioned phenomenon. From the time we first start eating, we learn that when something smells appealing to us, it will taste good too. Good smells can also increase our appetite (think of the hunger that hits you when you smell cooking garlic). Encourage your child to smell foods before asking them to take a taste. Talk about how foods smell and make sure that the smells at mealtime are appealing to your child.
Hearing: This one may sound odd, but think of mealtime experiences in various places - a crowded family restaurant, a busy cafe, a small romantic restaurant, or in your own dining room. Sound does shape our experiences. Negative experiences with mealtime in an overwhelming environment can have an effect on how we perceive food. Trying new foods should happen in an environment that is pleasant to the child.
Taste: Finally, of course taste is important in the mealtime experience. If something tastes good, we are much more likely to eat it again. We often start by giving children bland foods to try: plain peas, broccoli, carrot sticks, and so on. Don't be afraid to experiment with food combinations, spices, and condiments to ensure that foods taste good from the start! More tips on how to do this will be coming on the blog!
Introducing a new food can be daunting. Take this common scenario for example: you want your toddler eating more vegetables so you put some peas on his dinner plate. You then plead with him to just eat a bite. He finally does and then spits the peas out. You try to get him to eat some again, desperate to get the vegetables in him. This turns into a power struggle complete with screaming and tears until you finally give up. Chances are you won't present peas for a while, if ever again. However, research shows us that continued exposures to a new food do increase rates of consumption. Therefore, it is important to continue to expose a child. So, how do you present a new food and avoid the battle? Extremely gradually. Here are some steps to try:
1. Put the new food on your plate and model trying it. It is common that a child's first experience with a food is the first time they even see it. Wouldn't you be wary trying something if you've never even seen it before? Making mealtime a family affair is crucial. Talk about how the food looks, tastes, feels in your mouth, and so on.
2. Put the food out in a bowl and model serving yourself. Encourage your child to serve the food onto his plate as well. Do not put the pressure of eating on him - simply praise any new interactions with the food.
3. Encourage your child to explore the food with all the senses before even talking about consuming it. Look at it, touch it, smell it.
4. Take baby steps when it comes to tasting and consuming the food. Don't do too much in one exposure. Start with kissing it, putting the food to the teeth and tongue, and then eventually baby bites. Don't forget to praise any new interaction with the food! Make the presence of the food as positive of an experience as possible!
Stay tuned as this series about introducing foods continues!