5 Tips To Get Families Started
It doesn’t matter if you call it extreme picky eating, or severe food aversion, or problem feeding or any number of other terms. You know it when you are in the trenches. Your child will typically eat fewer than 20 foods, and often avoids whole categories (often vegetables and meats).
From Short Order Cook To Family Meals
When parents decide that they are ready to tackle this issue, they are often stumped by what to feed. They are used to rotating the same handful of menu items, day in and day out. Sometimes, they rush back to the kitchen to throw together a grilled cheese mid- meal, because their child refused to eat anything served, even previously accepted foods.
You may have read articles, or been given information by a pediatrician, or even participate in weekly feeding therapy – but you don’t really know how to build on foods to advance them. I have seen time and again children who “perform” for a feeding therapist, often in a clinic or other contrived setting, but will not replicate that “good eating behavior” at home.
Prep Work – On Your Mindset
Before you begin the journey to help your child become less picky, we need to do a little “prep” work – on your mindset! Just like we chop vegetables and marinate meet and pre-heat the oven, engaging in some prep work will help you be open to the new foods that you will be offering.
If you haven’t read my blog on changing your child’s relationship with food, take a quick peek at that first. It all starts with feeding roles and who is in charge of what. Remember, you decide what food to serve, and when and where to serve it. Your child decides how much to eat, and whether he or she will eat. You always offer something that your child will eat, while exposing and rotating new foods daily. It’s simple and clear – but following it needs to be done consistently!
After you have familiarized yourself with the feeding roles, be sure to discuss them with your spouse or significant other. We definitely want you and any other adults in the household to be on the same page when it comes to any changes around feeding. If you have a partner that sabotages the process by sneaking a child snacks or anything they want, success will come slowly, if at all. It is not mean to set a schedule and be in control of what food is served and when. In fact, it is a loving thing to do – it is predictable, comforting and caring. Write that down if you need to! You are not a mean mom (or dad) for saying “no”.
Next, get rid of the idea that someone other than you is going to “fix” your child. Dropping her off at a feeding clinic weekly will not, I repeat, will not, change anything unless you, as a family, are willing to do the work that the therapist gives you. Yes, it involves work. If you are not given a home program and things to work on for the time in between therapy sessions, find another therapist. I know that may sound harsh, but I have spent too much time in my career listening to families tell me stories of “therapy that didn’t work”. My two questions in response: 1. Did you know what to do when the therapist was not present? And 2. Did you do it? Things change when we work at them, when we focus and put the time and effort in. I won’t sugar coat it – making this change is work. But it does not have to be unpleasant, scary, stressful, or anxiety-provoking. It doesn’t have to take years. It can be a fun process of growth if you allow it to be, and you follow the next prep tip.
Finally, remember that like all processes of change, there will be ups and downs. There will be easy days, and hard days. Embrace them all and learn from them. You may want to even keep a journal, documenting what worked, what didn’t work, why, and what could be done differently next time. A journal also helps you see the “big picture” when you look back after a few weeks and really see progress happening. I sometimes ask the families I work with to look back 4 weeks and tell me how things are different now. They are often amazed that so much change has occurred, but they were still focusing on the challenges, and not the successes!
So the oven is pre-heated, your veggies are chopped, the meat is marinated, and your mind is ready to go! Here are the 5 tips to get you started and help answer that big looming question: WHAT should I feed my child??
5 Tips To Get Started
- Learn how to master food chaining. You may have heard me mention “food chaining” before. This is a specific method that involves finding similarities in color, smell, shape, texture or flavor, and building on them with other foods, as a way to move up a “chain”. I will offer a few examples, but please also follow autism.nutritionist on Instagram for amazing information and graphics related to food chaining!
Let’s use chicken as our first example. Say your child only eats a certain brand and shape of chicken nugget, but you’d like him to eventually eat healthier chicken. The dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets are similar to ABC or drumstick shaped nuggets. From there, move to chicken strips, then baked breaded chicken, then grilled chicken. You are initially changing the shape while keeping the rest of it the same. The strips should then change the texture slightly, but not color or smell. Then change a bit of flavor with baked chicken, but not color. Finally, you can try grilled or baked chicken with no breading, which is a far cry from those greasy nuggets!
Another example is a child who will only eat crackers, but you would like him to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We would start with chaining different crackers and at the same time, putting the tiniest bit of spread on a cracker. We then move to toast, plain and with spread. You can either introduce spread of pb alone or pb&j with the toast folded over, or move to softer, untoasted bread and repeat.
Learning how to food chain and getting really good at it will be an invaluable skill as you begin to add new foods.
- Explore condiments and sauces. Many picky eaters like plain, bland food. You can start to introduce other flavors using ramekins, small bowls or a mini muffin tray to put a variety of dips in for pasta, meats or fruits and veggies. I had one young client who liked raw broccoli dipped in a mixture of Ranch and ketchup that he discovered himself. The problem was, he only ate it this way, and refused all other veggies. His parents wanted to serve other veggies, so we used the same dip to introduce raw carrots and. It worked! Another client would only eat bananas. We began introducing peanut butter, honey, and yogurt as dip options, and were able to transition to apple slices using those dips. Buy different items at the store and introduce small amounts with accepted food at first. Then, using the food chaining strategy, try using other, similar foods, with the same dips. The possibilities are endless – and fun – with dips.
- Modify what the adults are eating to be more “kid-friendly”. It is okay to modify or give your child a tiny serving of the same thing the adults are eating. I make a vegetarian burrito that has rice, black beans, red and yellow sweet peppers, onions, corn, avocado, and cheese. When my kids were small, they rejected much of that, so I would make them a quesadilla, and put some of the black bean mix on their plates a side dish. They usually picked around everything but the beans and cheese, but they were still getting exposure to it regularly. (As teenagers, they now like this dish, and don’t even fuss that it is vegetarian!) This way, you avoid cooking a separate meal, and expose to the newer food at the same time.
- Make food that pleases the senses of sight and smell, and tastes good too! If it “looks yucky”, your child will pre-decide that it’s going to taste yucky. Prepare food in a way that won’t turn your child off immediately. Only you know what this looks like for your individual picky eater! One of my clients refused to even try cooked oatmeal – purely based on looks. But when he was offered a “breakfast cookie” that contained oatmeal, bananas, flax seeds and some other ingredients, he agreed to try it. He said it looked like a regular cookie and smelled like a bakery. If you can’t make it look more appealing, serve it in a fancy way, on a special plate and/or with a garnish. This does not have to be Instagram or Pinterest-worthy at all!Additionally, forget the bland flavors of typical “kid food”. Use fresh herbs and spices, oils and other ingredients to make food taste good. You don’t have to be a great cook! We love grilling everything in our house (veggies included – great in the summer!) We have also discovered some new favorite gadgets.
First up is the Instant Pot Ultra 10-in-1 Electric Pressure Cooker. My husband makes the best teriyaki chicken, Korean short ribs, and carnitas for tacos in it! Yes, it’s a glorified crock pot in a way, but the Instant Pot can also do hard boiled eggs, yogurt, and much more!
We just recently purchased this air fryer. My husband has already mastered fried chicken and bacon in the air fryer. These two kitchen gadgets alone have increased my stepson’s acceptance of different meats by triple!
Last is a spiralizer. I’ve had this one for a few years. I asked for it for my birthday long before they were cool, and zucchini noodles were called “zoodles”. This one item singlehandedly got my kids to like zucchini, yellow squash, and sweet potato!
- Give your child choices. I love this tip, especially for when you have a new gadget, like the ones above. Look through recipe books or search online for items that your child would like to try. If they like a certain restaurant or fast food meal, look for “copy cat” recipes to make at home, which are almost always healthier and more cost effective. Your child may actually be tired of the same foods every day, but not know how to tell you.
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