As speech pathologists, we encounter many families that tell us their children are “picky eaters.” We often hear stories of mealtime lasting more than an hour, a child refusing to eat a certain food, and some children not eating at all.
Throughout the years we have realized that with simple changes, families can enjoy this time of day instead of dreading it. Three things to always remember are: keep it playful, never force your child to eat something, and be patient. We know how important mealtime is to families in terms of catching up on their day and spending time with each other, so we hope these techniques are helpful and make your mealtimes go smoothly!
Check out our 10 tips to make mealtime a success in your house:
1) Let them help. - Before breakfast, lunch, or dinner even takes place, go grocery shopping and cook together. While shopping you can talk about different foods you see (e.g. - color, shape, taste, etc.) and while cooking they can help you out with specific tasks depending on what age they are (e.g. - cutting with a plastic knife, mixing, cleaning, etc.). If children see the process of getting the food and making it, they are more likely to eat it! As parents, we know there may not always be time for this, but attempt to do this at least once a week.
2) Make the eating space child-friendly. We often have children make their own placemats by drawing a picture of themselves in the middle or drawing a picture of where to place the utensils and cups. (Laminating these is a great idea so that you can use them repeatedly). If your child is old enough you can even have them set the table. This gives them the opportunity to help and also allows them to feel accomplished.
3) Have FUN with food. Don’t be afraid to get the place messy! Yes, cleaning up can become quite the chore, but the rewards will definitely outweigh the downsides. Use a large surface area to explore foods. You can even move the highchair to a large table and remove the tray. Be creative and show your child how to touch, smoosh, and smash the food! You can even explore using utensils - cut sweet potato with a knife, scoop out avocado with a spoon, or poke the carrots with a fork.
4) Let them play. Some children we work with have sensory issues, so in the past we have recommended sensory play to parents. For instance, some of our families have made a sensory table and filled shoeboxes with beans, dried peas, and rice. Our most recent family had a child who avoided eating or drinking cold items. They created a sensory box with ice on one side and warm water on the other. These types of activities allow your child to get accustomed to different shapes, textures, and temperatures.
5) Have fun with presentation. Presentation of food is also something you can easily modify. We encourage parents to make happy face pancakes, applesauce alphabet letters, or stick figures with green beans. We recently had a little girl who disliked red foods, but she loved Elmo, so we had her mother make Elmo’s face out of red peppers throughout the week. As they say, third time’s the charm and guess what? She ate it all up! So use colors to your advantage - create a picture with different colored foods such marshmallow clouds and broccoli trees! And in general, always present your child with two staple foods (foods that they are used to) and one target food (food that you want them to eat) at first to get them gradually accustomed to the idea of trying new things!
6) Peer modeling is key. We can’t stress this one enough. It is of course beneficial to eat dinner as a family and be a positive eating role model for your children. However, some of the parents we work with often find that if they have “mealtime playdates” their children all of a sudden begin eating greens just because they saw their friend eating celery, lettuce, and green beans! And if it is okay with the other parents, take pictures or video their friend so that you can show your child the positive model during mealtime when their friend is not around.
7) Always praise them for their accomplishments - however small they might seem. Some children do not even want to be in the same room as a certain food, so the fact they may now allow it to be next to them deserves a round of applause! You want to develop an environment of positivity, so as mentioned before, avoid forcing them to eat anything because you do not want them to associate mealtime with an anxiety-provoking experience.
8) Don’t forget to involve the stuffed animals, dolls, or favorite toys! Engage in pretend play by feeding their stuffed animal the target food with a spoon, saying “Mmmm that tastes good! Now it’s your turn you feed her.” Do this for a few days and then gradually start feeding yourself and then try giving it to your child. Chances are they will at least bring it to their lips or lick it because their favorite buddy did so!
9) Start slow and be patient. As mentioned before, some children avoid a certain food altogether, not wanting to be in the same room with it. In this case, the next step would be to put it on the table where they are sitting. Try it every day until they become okay with the idea. Consistency is key. Then, move onto touching it with their fingertip, then the palm of their hand, and then maybe bringing it up higher to their elbows, shoulders, and chin. Finally, have the food touch their lips followed by licking it with the tip of their tongue. Eventually your child will put the food in their mouth, chew, and swallow! And once again remember it will not happen in a flash - it could take days, weeks, or even months to get to the next step, but you must stay positive!
10) Talk about your foods using the 5 senses to encourage healthy eating habits. This is a technique we have been the most successful with. Have your child comment on what he or she hears - what you hear in the kitchen or while you bite into the food (e.g. -"I hear a crunchy chip."). Feel free to promote comments related to touch using adjectives such as “hard”, “soft”, “smooshy”, “bumpy”, “sticky”, etc. Talk about smells coming out of the kitchen or the food that is in front of them (e.g. - “Mmmm that smells sweet.”). You can of course comment using your sense of sight since the whole act of eating is extremely visual - color, length, shape, etc. And last but not least, have a conversation about how the food tastes (e.g. - “That was yummy and salty!”). The key is to keep the questions or statements you say open-ended to give your child the chance to spontaneously comment (e.g. - “Describe…” or Tell me about what you ____.”).
We wish you and your families successful & smooth mealtimes!
NOTE: If you notice issues with your child such as coughing, gagging, choking, etc. during mealtime please contact a speech-language pathologist or ENT to get your child evaluated.