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Dealing with picky eaters is a topic close to my own heart, as two of my kids are fussy eaters. I have to confess it has been a real challenge for us as a family.
Here, I offer some insight from my background in occupational therapy, as well as some strategies that worked for me as a parent!
Tips for dealing with picky eaters:
If you have a child who is a fussy eater, you have probably read lots of parenting articles on the topic already. The answers may have ranged from "typical toddler behavior" to "control issues".
But from an occupational therapy perspective, things can look a bit different.
Many kids are fussy eaters because they are struggling with sensory processing issues.
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) can affect a child's eating habits in different ways:
If this is a new concept for you, and you realize your child may be struggling with SPD in any area, then find a sensory-trained occupational therapist in your area to assess your child.
You can also read these excellent books on Sensory Processing Disorder to find out more:
(These are affiliate links to books on Amazon that I personally use and recommend. I may receive a small commission if you purchase something through my links.)
There are no tried and trusted methods that will work for every child. But here are some tips and ideas that you can try.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a few that worked for dealing with picky eaters in my own family as well as others I have worked with!
I think one of the most underrated steps in dealing with picky eaters is to try and understand WHY they are picky.
If you understand WHY your child is struggling with food, it becomes less personal. I know how easy it is to feel upset when your child rejects your painstakingly prepared meal, but usually the issue is beyond their control, especially when they are young.
When he was about 11, we took him to be evaluated for orthodontic braces, and one of the first things the orthodontist did, was to give him an orthodontic plate and got him to practice a swallowing technique.
Turns out that our son's slightly recessive lower jaw had made chewing tiring for him. Combined with a poor swallowing technique, this had resulted in slow eating, and avoidance of foods that required chewing.
If your child is a slow eater, and avoids meat and other chewy food, it may be worth investigating whether there are orthodontic and swallowing issues.
The most important thing is to try and understand WHY your child may be fussy, and don't take it personally.
Our ultimate goal should be for our kids to eat a healthy balanced diet!
We are bombarded by a variety of food choices in our modern age, but our
ultimate goal is not to have a child who eats everything, but one who is
healthy, and who makes healthy food choices.
Once you have figured out WHY your child struggles to eat well, and you are taking steps to help them desensitize, or to cope with their sensory processing issues or to develop coordination skills, then take these baby steps to a healthier diet:
1) Make a list of everything they DO eat (a good list to have on hand for caregivers).
2) Assess which nutrients are lacking.
3) Can you offer healthier choices to current foods?
4) Can you change the way food is presented? Be creative in how you present the food - try making pictures, cutting it into fun shapes etc.
5) Can you change who does the feeding?
A key concept in dealing with picky eaters is to introduce one new food at a time, over a period of time, and to not ask your child to eat a plate full of new food!
This means that most of the plate should contain food that your child is happy to eat, with a small portion of the plate containing the "new" food.
With younger kids (under 4 years), I would just keep offering new foods, but not forcing them to eat it if they say no.
Once your child is emotionally mature enough for you to negotiate/reason with them (usually between the ages of 3-5 years), then you can start using incentives and introducing a new food to 'try".
This food needs to be tried ("you don't have to like it, you just have to try it") before the rest of the meal can be consumed. Although there are some experts who don't think this is a helpful way for dealing with picky eaters, it is a method which did work for one of the kids in our family.
A word of encouragement to those dealing with picky eaters:
It DOES get better!
One of my boys struggled with many areas of sensory over-responsiveness, and feeding was a huge struggle for him. He did not latch until 24 hours after birth, and then refused to take anything but the breast - no dummies or bottles.
He gagged and vomited when I introduced baby food, and only started accepting solids at 9 months - and only finger foods!
Although he struggled with the textures of food for many years, and his diet was a little less varied than that of his peers, it was still healthy and balanced. Every year, he added a couple new foods to his diet. As a Boy Scout, he had to learn to eat the camp meals, as well as cook his own food, and he now eats a much more varied diet. He still prefers simple foods but is mature enough to try other foods.
Parenting is not easy, but it is not meant to be a battlefield.
As parents, we need to beware of forcing our kids to conform to what "society" expects of them, in order to save our own pride.
I know from experience it is socially awkward and sometimes downright embarrassing to have kids who don't eat what other kids eat.
I had to learn to swallow my own pride - their struggles are NOT a reflection of my abilities as a mother!
It really helped me to have a standard explanation of SPD that I could use, to explain to anyone who asked. More people are aware of sensory processing these days, and saying "he has sensory issues" usually meets with an understanding nod or a commiserating smile!
I also learnt to rejoice in what my kids COULD do well. So what if they are nibbling on bread, while the others are eating sausage and mash? It was more important to me that they were kind and considerate in their playtime with others.
Don't make mealtime another battleground that they have to face - for their sanity and yours.
And count your victories! I actually took notes of these particular victories :-)
There have been many more victories since then, and I confess each new food accepted received a little celebration! They may be small victories, but they are significant when you are dealing with picky eaters in your family!
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