Our top 10 tips to help picky eaters
Raising a child who is a picky eater can be challenging. At Learn Play Eat we want to help families overcome picky eating by sharing what we’ve learnt from our experience with an extremely picky eater, and from many discussions working with health professionals. We’ve put together our top 10 tips below:
- Get the nutrition right
If you’re worried your child might be rejecting whole food groups (e.g. they eat no meats, or veggies, or fruits) see your GP and ask for blood tests to check if they are missing important nutrients for growth and development. Your GP can then advise on the right supplements to use. You can also try seeing a dietitian or nutritionist about supplements, and for ideas on other ways to get what’s missing through other foods which might be accepted.
- Get professional support
There are several types of health professionals who treat picky eating. Occupational Therapists, Speech Pathologists, Psychologists, Dietitians and Nutritionists can all help and may have training in feeding therapy. This blog post goes into more detail about what feeding therapists do and how they can help. If you’re not sure if you need this level of support this blog post might help you decide if you need to speak to a health professional.
- Create fun experiences with food at home
Children who are very fussy eaters may be truly scared of foods. We can help them overcome this by creating positive experiences with food, and showing them that food can be fun! You can try ‘food play’ activities at home, where the kids are free to get messy, and explore and learn about foods, with no pressure to eat. If you’d like ideas on how to do this you can download the Learn Play Eat app, which has been used by thousands of families to help picky eaters.
Other ways to incorporate food fun into daily life, might be by having the kids help with cooking, baking, gardening and grocery shopping.
- Remove the pressure
The more a child feels like they are being pressured to eat, the less they will want to. And that includes bribing and well-intentioned praise too. You can try using the ‘Division of Responsibility’ (DOR) approach by Ellyn Satter. DOR says that the parents provide the food and decide what the meal is, when it will be and where, and the children decide if they will eat and how much. It’s not the parents’ job to ‘make’ the child eat. It suggests adding a couple of ‘safe’ foods to the meal which the child likes, so they can always find something to eat and won’t go hungry. We serve the food family style, with all the foods in the centre of the table in separate bowls, so that the kids can serve themselves and choose what and how much they want. We also allow kids to eat dessert WITH the meal if they want, so that it’s not used as a bribing tool or given more importance than other food (this sounds crazy at first, but after a few meals our kids got used to it).
- Keep offering foods which were refused
Children may need many chances to learn about a food before they are ready to try eating it. This could be through food play, or by offering it as part of the family meal. Even when they do try, they might not like it at first, and it’s important they know that if they don’t like it, they don’t have to finish eating it. A few weeks later they may be open to trying it again and might like it this time.
- Try food chaining
Food chaining, or food bridges, are where you take a food which is accepted by your child, and change it slightly, so that they can still eat it, but it is different. For example, if they eat one brand of chicken nugget, try changing the brand. If that is accepted, then try maybe a breaded chicken schnitzel cut up into similar sized pieces, then you could try fish fingers… In the same vein, try pairing new foods up with accepted foods or sauces, to help them seem more familiar.
- Routines and schedules for enjoyable family mealtimes
Having set times in the day for 3 meals and 2 snacks means that children know what to expect, they won’t be grazing through the day and will be hungry for mealtime. Limit the time for a meal to 20 or 30 minutes, then clear up and don’t offer more food until the next meal or snack-time. Even if a child doesn’t want to eat, it’s important that they come to the table and sit with the family. Mealtimes are about so much more than just eating, we learn social skills, we share our news, we take time to listen to each other and enjoy each other’s company.
- Model a healthy relationship with food
Having at least 1 parent present and participating in the mealtimes with children can help with modelling appropriate behaviour and showing that we can enjoy a variety of foods. Try to avoid ‘diet-talk’ in-front of children, it can make picky eating worse and lead to body image issues.
- Get active
Help your kids to find a sport or exercise that they love, and make sure they see you getting active too! Exercise helps to improve self-esteem, reduce anxiety, improve core strength, and increase appetite. All things that we need if we want children to be able to sit at the table and focus on their meal. And it can be heaps of fun to do together too!
- Know that it’s not your fault
Picky eating can be caused by many different things. Often if can be linked back to trauma in infancy such as choking, reflux or a gastro incident. It could be the physical structure of the mouth causing challenges, for example with a tongue tie. Or it could be related to a developmental disorder. Sometimes, it’s a combination of things and it’s hard to work out exactly. It’s easy for parents to blame themselves, so it’s important to know that you didn’t cause it, but you can help your child now to overcome it. It’s also important to get support for yourself too, if you need. It can help to talk to family or your GP, and sometimes online support groups such as this one where parents are going through similar challenges, can be useful.