Help for picky eaters in your own home
If you’re faced with helping a picky eater develop a healthy relationship with food, you may be wondering where to begin.
While in some cases, seeing a health professional is the best way forward, there are also many things you can do at home to help your child get on the right track with their eating now. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Keep the pressure off
It’s easy to unintentionally pressure your child to eat, especially if you are worried about their health. The problem is that pressure, both negative and positive, can discourage children from eating. Making your child finish their meal can create fear around food, while too much praise can lead to performance anxiety, as the child worries they may not be able to try another new food the next time they eat. Bribes – another form of pressure – can lead kids to thinking, “these beans must be awful if they have to bribe me to eat them!”
Instead, most professionals suggest toning down the pressure by keeping a neutral face when food is eaten, and praising your child’s effort rather than the achievement itself.
Keep a regular meal routine
Kids flourish when they have a regular routine to follow. Try scheduling your day around a regular eating routine such as three mealtimes and two snack times – at the same time, the same place, and with the same bowls, plates and cutlery. If your child doesn’t eat much at one of their mealtimes, try not to stress. There will be another opportunity for them to eat in two or three hours’ time.
Eat meals together
For children, eating by yourself with a parent watching you can be an anxious experience. Instead, try eating with your child. If they see you enjoying a variety of foods, they are more likely to view eating is a safe activity and copy your behaviour. Eating together also reduces frustration by making mealtimes something to look forward to: a time to catch up and chat about what you’ve done during the day.
Divide the responsibility for eating between parent and child
Developed by child feeding expert Ellyn Satter, the ‘Division of Responsibility’ is a helpful approach that allows parents to nurture their child’s natural ability to eat. It works by dividing the responsibility of mealtimes between parent and child:
- Parents are in charge of feeding – they prepare meals and decide what, where and when the family eats
- Children are responsible for eating – they decide whether they will eat and how much
You can put this into practice by serving meals as separate dishes in the middle of the table, so that everyone in the family can put what they want on their plate (try to include a couple of foods that everyone likes, even if it’s yoghurt or crackers for your picky eater!). You won’t feel the need to constantly ask your child to eat, while kids get an opportunity to serve themselves new foods when they feel ready.
Give your child fun food experiences
Fussy eaters need plenty of opportunities to learn about food before they are ready to try eating it. Try integrating some enjoyable food experiences in your child’s day, such as preparing dinner together, baking muffins, growing vegetables, shopping for groceries or visiting a favourite café. The idea is to focus on experiencing food in different ways, rather than just eating it.
Try food play
Therapists often use play to help fussy eaters feel more comfortable with food. You can try this at home with fun activities such as finger painting with a jar of pasta sauce, sword fighting with carrot sticks or building things with cut up vegetables. The Learn Play Eat app, approved by qualified feeding therapists, has over 200 food play activities you can try, with points and levels to encourage child participation.
Give Food Chaining a go
Food Chaining is a treatment approach that offers help for picky eating by building on a child’s past successful eating experiences.
You can try this method by taking a food your child likes and making small changes they can tolerate. For example, if your child likes a certain brand of hot chips, you could offer them another brand of chips, then try a different shape of hot chips, sweet potato hot chips, potato wedges, roast potatoes, and so forth. The goal is to gradually increase the variety of foods your child can eat.
Chat to your child about how food benefits our bodies
If your child is older, try talking to them in an age-appropriate way about how different types of foods help us do different things, and why variety is important. Be careful not to go too far into the science of nutrition though, especially if your child is young and unable to understand these concepts.
Seek advice about your child’s nutrition
If you’re worried that your child might be missing food groups from their diet, have a chat with your GP for help for fussy eaters. They can check your child’s growth and recommend supplements (e.g. Sustagen or Pediasure shakes) to ensure they are getting the nutrients they need.
Want more help? Look out for our next blog posts, which will cover more about when you might want to speak to a health professional, and who it is that specialises in treating picky eating.