This is part 5 of the Series: What to Do When Picky Eating Doesn’t Get Better Series
I am ending this series with what I believe is the most important thing parents can do to help expand a child’s food repertoire: expose, expose, expose.
I always check in with exposure when it seems my kids are stuck on the same old, same old. Am I in a food rut? Can I expose them to more food? Have I become stressed at meals? It’s always a good reminder that a children need to experience food in a variety of ways before they can eat it.
1. Don’t let them food jag: Young children will want to food jag, meaning if you let them make the meal decisions they will eat the same food for days in a row. It is important not to let children do this and remind them that “we don’t eat the same things every day.” This is especially true for resistant or problem feeders.
“For most kids who are problem feeders, once they get sick of that food they are jagging on, they completely eliminate it from their repertoire and never reintroduce it again,” says Lindsay, a speech therapist who blogs about problem feeders at Food for Thought. “For a child who already has a limited food repertoire, this is definitely not something you want.”
2. Try not to serve the same meal 2 days in a row: Not eating the same thing 2 days in a row is a good way to keep a decent variety in a child’s diet. So if yesterday was peanut butter and jelly for lunch, today can be something different.
“I found this a bit tough, particularly in the beginning when they ate so few foods. So I just tried my best to keep food repetition as minimal as possible over two days,” adds Lindsay. “But even now, with them having a bigger repertoire, I see the impact.”
3. Be strategic with food exposure: When planning meals, be strategic with the food you are offering. Alternate dinner meals between entrees your kids prefer and new or unfamiliar items. On nights it’s something unfamiliar, serve a side they like. When it’s an entree they like, serve a new side. Make a plan for the week of meals, and try to stick to it.
4. Serve meals family style: My coauthor for Fearless feeding, Jill Castle, wrote a great piece about her experience switching to family style meals years ago (placing food in bowls or platters and having everyone serve them self). Her kids were 4, 6, 7, and 9 years old and now they are mostly all teenagers.
“My kids love it. And despite my late start, they are all turning out (so far) to be “normal” eaters. They have their food preferences and their dislikes. Sometimes they love dinner and eat a lot, and sometimes they don’t. Best of all, they tolerate the company of a variety of foods on the table, whether they choose to eat them or not.”
5. Allow children to eat food their way: Now that Big A is older, I give her hints on eating unfamiliar food. She never ate lasagna until she realized she could take the pasta pieces off and eat them separately or chicken noodle soup until she could scoop out the chicken and noodles.
So let children pick out the food and eat meals in a way that suits them. It allows them to warm up to eating the whole thing and slowly get a taste for it.
6. Focus on the sensory properties of food: “Use food for other purposes than eating to increase the child’s exposure to the food in fun, interactive ways,” says Melanie Potock, feeding therapist and author of Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids. “For example, learning to match colors with orange carrots & red bell peppers gets those nutritious foods in your child’s hands and that’s a safe, fun place to start!”
To see Melanie in action, see this video.
7. Serve food with an expectant attitude: It can be tough to keep offering food you know your child is unlikely to eat, but by doing so you help instill confidence in them. One reader, who was made aware of her pickiness at a young age, explains how not doing this can play out:
“I was constantly told this [I was picky] as a child, and the effect was I decided I didn’t have to try new foods or foods that made me uncomfortable because I had an excuse – I was a picky eater! It was like it was now legitimately beyond my control, it’s just the way I was, my mum said so!”
8. Let them experience meals from beginning to end: A study in Appetite showed that 6-12 year old children who cook are less picky then those who don’t help in the kitchen. Now it may be that more adventurous children are more likely to enjoy cooking, but the ultimate in food exposure is seeing a food transform from beginning to end.
Having children be a part of the process of picking out the food, preparing it and putting it on the table teaches important skills while allowing children to become familiar with a variety of foods.
9. Don’t settle when it comes to food: If we have to cook food every day we might as well find a way to enjoy it — and this will no doubt spill over to kids’ attitudes about food. Stay tuned, as I’m going to be blogging more about ways I’m trying to get more enjoyment, order and tasty variety in my meal planning process.
10. Create relaxing and enjoyable mealtimes: Remember to keep that long-term view and remember that food enjoyment is a prerequisite to eating well. Following the Division of Responsibility is key to stress-free meals.
How does food exposure go in your house?
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