For most parents, there comes a point and time when their children begin to develop food and texture preferences and more often than not, a picky eating or selective food period. While it may be hard to completely avoid a picky eating period there are ways we as adults can best support children to set them up for success in the kitchen.
1. Fewer snacks, more meals
“More meals,” does not mean more meals throughout the day, rather prioritizing the main meals, breakfast, lunch, and dinner is a great way to set children up to succeed during meal times. While everyone loves a good snack here or there, when we provide unlimited opportunities for our children (and ourselves) to graze throughout the day, it is more likely children are not coming to the table hungry and less likely to engage in a family meal or establish a mealtime rhythm. There is more information on the science of snacking from Harvard here.
2. Together, not separate
As someone who cares for children, you have likely come across divider plates at some point and time. Divider plates can be useful when teaching children how to use utensils and aiding children to practice scooping during fine motor development. Divider plates definitely have a time and place in meal planning for children but we should try to avoid relying too heavily on divider plates for early eaters.
Creating physical barriers for food during each meal reinforces the idea that mess is bad, food should not touch, and all of life fits into neat little boxes. For a child who is struggling with picky eating, separating food can highlight anxiety centered on food, textures, and sensory sensitivities. Read more here on divided plates vs undivided.
3. 100 foods before 1
Baby Led Weaning (BLW) has quickly become widely popular amongst parents, pediatricians, and experts in the childcare and development field over the last 15 years. BLW is the method and ideology of solid food introduction for infants that introduces babies to various flavors, textures, and skips spoon-feeding partially or completely.
More and more research supports the benefits of BLW and how early introduction to different textures, flavors, and allergens reduces the likelihood of children growing into selective and picky eaters and being more open to exploring food at the table. Along with this school of thought is the idea of introducing 100 foods to an infant by their first birthday which creates more opportunities for infants to engage at the kitchen table with the family and fosters independence.
4. Intention, not distraction
It can be very challenging to engage a toddler at mealtime but most experts have found, the more distractions you add during a meal, the harder it is for a child to learn to stay at the table. While it can feel tempting to bring toys, books, and screens to the dinner table to help your child stay in their seat, the novelty of these diversions can quickly wear off, and rather than a child who is excited to be at the table, you have a child who is quite confused, overwhelmed and distraught.
Focusing on intention rather than distraction can be a great way to combat picky eating and positively engage your child in meal preparation and meal as a whole. Have your child help wash vegetables, use a child-safe wooden knife, and create plenty of opportunities for choice on the table. If you notice it is especially hard for your little one to stay in their seat, lean in! It’s hard for most adults to stay seated during an entire meal, so why expect your children to? Just be clear with the boundaries around the meal. Maybe you instate a rule that getting up is ok if you feel your body needs to move, but all food stays and is eaten at the table.
5. Safety foods
While we all want our children to try new foods, being open to different experiences is hard, especially for children who are accustomed to things being a certain way. Most experts would recommend you keep 1-2 safety foods on the table during meals, so even if there are new foods you offer, there is something you are sure your child will eat in the event they do not opt to lean into adventure during any given meal. Safety foods as the name implies, create a sense of safety for you and your child, with the assurance that this is something they enjoy, are familiar with, and are within their comfort zone.
6. Options, options, options
On a last but not least note, always remember to create opportunities for choice during mealtimes. When we offer our children options we create space for autonomy and exploration in a way that doesn’t remove authority as a parent or caregiver. This can look like offering 2-3 options after school for snack, “Would you like carrots, cucumbers, or yellow peppers?” or this can look like offering a variety of fruits on a breakfast spread for children to pick and choose from freely.
Helping the picky eater in your life can be an uphill journey in the beginning but with research-backed tools and an action plan, there is nothing you and your child cannot handle as a team. For more great resources, check out these great reads and resources.
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