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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!
You can read lots of parenting articles and get a range of answers ranging 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 kids' eating habits in different ways:
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 my picky eaters!
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.
A child who is "Over-Responsive" to sensations (this usually affects other areas of their life as well, such as dressing, reactions to noisy environments) experiences almost all sensation as threatening. This response is on a subconscious level and cannot be overridden by reason when they are young.
Likewise, a sensory seeking child feels the need to get stimulation through food that is "intense" (super crunchy, super flavored etc).
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 to find out more:
Our ultimate goal is to have kids who eat a healthy balanced diet!
We are bombarded by a variety of food choices in our modern age, but our goal is not to have a child who eats everything, but one who is healthy!
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 SPD or to develop coordination skills, then take these baby steps to a healthier diet:
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!
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 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 - finger foods!
He still struggles with the texture of food, and although his diet is less varied than that of his peers, it is still healthy and balanced. And every year, he adds a couple new foods to his diet.
I have reason to believe that he will be eating a more varied diet by the time he is 21!
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 also helped to have a standard explanation of SPD that I could use, and 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! Here are our most recent ones!
2012 was the year my boys learned to eat potatoes and carrots in decent portions, as well as brown rice (instead of white)
2013 was the year my younger son learned to eat bananas!
There have been many more 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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