I'm so excited to finally be sharing some specific tips on how to get picky eaters (or kids that just aren't interested in food) to eat! In case you missed my post last month, I told the story of my son Eli and his struggles with eating. He has recently finished a 4 month feeding therapy program through Primary Children's Rehab in Bountiful, UT. While he did make some improvements in therapy, I consider what I learned to be even more valuable than what Eli learned because I am the one who is helping him through the eating process. Feeding children doesn't always come naturally to parents, and when there are bumps in the road, we often don't know what to do. I'm hoping that these tips that I learned can help you feed your child and make mealtime less stressful for everyone involved.
- Meal times should be structured but fun. Don't chase your child around the house while trying to get them to eat. Sit them in their high chair or at the table for each meal. My son doesn't usually like to get in his high chair because he knows that means it's time to eat. One way we get him in his chair is by blowing a few bubbles onto his tray. Like most kids, he loves bubbles, so he knows that if he can have a little fun before he eats, he's more willing to sit at the table.
- Present the food in a fun way. Try fun plates, cups, and silverware. Eli loves eating out of muffin tins; he thinks it's fun for each food to have its own little compartment. He also really likes eating with toothpicks as opposed to a fork. If he says he's done and wants to get down, I try to switch up the utensil he's using or cut his food into a different shape. I will throw the food back in the microwave for a few seconds to make it taste better. Sometimes this will recapture his interest and get him to eat more.
- Offer 70% foods he already likes and 30% new foods. It's easy to get stuck in a rut and only present foods that you know your child will eat. It's easier that way. But in order for them to improve, they need to be challenged and pushed a little. This won't happen if you're never presenting the opportunity.
- Accept that learning to like new foods is a long process. Let's say we're trying to get Eli to eat a carrot stick. The process goes like this at our house: "Eli, do you think you can look at this carrot? Good job looking! Do you think you can let us put it on your tray? That's awesome! Thanks so much, buddy! Do you think you can reach out and touch it with one finger? Can you put your whole hand on it? Can you make it walk up your arm? Can you bounce it on your head? Can you kiss it? Can you make teeth marks in it? Can you bite it in half and then spit it out?" This process may take weeks or even months! It took Eli 4 months to go from not even being able to look at a carrot to chewing it a few times and spitting it out. He still won't swallow it, but hey! He's making progress!
- Relate a food your child doesn't like to a food he does like. For example, if your child won't eat a strawberry but loves fruit snacks, point out that the strawberry is red just like the red fruit snacks that they love. If they don't want to try their peas, tell them that the peas are round just like cheerios. Drawing similarities between the foods helps kids realize that maybe the new food isn't so scary after all.
- Use your imagination. One of Eli's favorite games is to pretend that his spoon is an excavator and is digging in his food. We do all kinds of silly things, like telling him that if he takes a bite, it's going to make him grow big and strong. As soon as he eats it, we'll pretend that we can physically see him growing bigger and we tell him that he is going to get so big that he's going to burst out of his high chair. He giggles and eats more because the idea of busting out of his chair is exciting.
- Praise your child every step of the way. Kids want to feel like you're proud of them, so give them the praise they crave. While my son may not want to eat a certain food or even touch it, I praise him for looking at it and even allowing it to be on his tray. I try to constantly tell him how proud I am of him. Is it exhausting? Heck yes. But he wants praise, so praise him I shall. We've recently started a chart with Eli where he gets to put a sticker on it if he tries a new food. We try to make a huge deal out of it and try to make it super exciting. We hang it on the fridge in plain sight and talk about it throughout the day. The more excitement we show, the more he shows.
- Use moderation in all things. Don't overwhelm your child with too much food at once. I never set down a huge amount of food at the beginning of the meal because it implies "You have to eat all of this before you can leave the table." Instead, I offer foods in small quantities, and switch back and forth between foods. He usually ends up eating more this way. Also, I don't try to make him eat only healthy foods. A little junk food is fine and helps make eating more pleasurable for him.
- Make meal time a positive experience. Never scold, threaten, lose your patience, or let your child know you want to strangle them (sooooo hard!). Stay calm. I definitely believe that kids can feel your energy and the more stressed out you are, the more they will resist.
- Trust your kid, but only to a certain extent. A lot of people say that your kids know what they need and should be 100% responsible for their own nourishment. I don't agree. If I left Eli's eating completely up to him, he would solely eat fruit snacks and M&M's and would lie on the couch limp all day because he wasn't getting the nutrients he needed to thrive. It's my job to give him healthy foods. Frequently, Eli will eat just enough to take his hunger pains away, but won't eat enough to fill up. It's my job to encourage him to eat more because he needs to eat enough to keep him full until the next meal. Otherwise, he'll be hungry again an hour later and I'm not going to feed him every hour. Sorry!
- Don't try to make your child eat in social settings. If we are going over to a friend's house or to a party, I usually feed Eli at home before we leave. Through experience, I've learned that if there are too many distractions or if he's out of his comfort zone, he won't eat a single thing. I can't expect him to sit at a table he's never eaten at before with with people he's unfamiliar with and eat. I don't want him to feel anxious. Of course, I offer him food while we're out, but I don't pressure him to eat where he's not comfortable.
- Accept small improvements. For Eli, I consider it a success if he will even allow a new food to be on his tray, even if he doesn't eat it or touch it. Do I wish he would just pick up the dang food, put it in his mouth, chew it, and swallow it? Yes! Every day! But I'm learning that that's not going to happen anytime soon, so I just need to take what I can get.
I love talking to people about their children's eating problems because I can totally relate. I've pretty much been through it all with my Eli. By no means do I have it all figured out or know all the tricks though, so I'd love to hear from you. What works for you? How have you helped your child work through his eating issues?