Minimize Picky Eating - Part 1

Minimize Picky Eating

Food refusal cannot be completely avoided. Selective eating cannot be completely avoided. Children will go through phases where their intake changes and their preferences change. So, it’s important to remember the mantras from Module Two… but also be the leader of our family to guide them through these phases and stages.

Remember, it’s our job to provide the environment, patience, and no pressure to see our children navigate their preferences and periods of food refusal. Let’s go through some strategies to set the stage for meal time.

Remember to not forget our mantras along the way!

Keep a Routine (Importance of schedules and comment of capping meal times:)

Remembering mantra number one from module two –  it’s important that we offer meals and snacks on a schedule. After your toddler is one, they will be approaching a three meals and two snack schedule around their naps by the time they turn 15-18 months. When it comes to food/snack the best combination is:

Breakfast, snacks, lunch, snack, and dinner with of course naps and play and life in between.

The routine is EXTREMELY important. Why? Well,  a toddler’s brain thrives on expectation and routine. There is predictability and order to the day. Your toddler has no concept of time, so it doesn’t matter if your routine is not going by the clock exactly, but it should resemble a structure. That’s why many toddlers do so well in preschools, because there is structure and routine. Their developing brains thrive on that predictability while the rest of their brain is occupied with learning and absorbing everything. The routine is also mentally important for you.

If your child eats very little or doesn’t eat at all, you might say things like.

“Is your belly full?”

“Eat how much you like.

The next time we eat will be ___ (insert next meal or snack there.)” Knowing there is another meal or snack coming helps you remember that YOU are providing them opportunities and variety to eat and they are responsible for feeding if and how much. 

When it comes to meal times, these should get shorter as they get older. For under 18 months, I usually don’t prefer rushing or capping meals –  as they’re learning about food. Of course, if they’re just sitting there and playing with the food, or throwing it – It’s probably best to stop the meal. When Ryaan was under one, I generally used a 45 min cap… and as he became more proficient, ended the meal if he threw food, got up from the table and didn’t return after repeating “it’s meal time! – If you get up that means you’re done…. Are you done?”

As they get older, the meals should not last as long. But, when trouble-shooting schedules,  Ideally we should try to keep 2-3 hours between meals and snacks to ensure they have an appetite to eat. When it comes to snacks, aim for snacks with protein or healthy fats to ensure they are staying full longer. Some of our family’s faves include cheeses, yogurts, oatmeal bars with low sugar, edamame, peanut butter with banana, or avocado with everything but the bagel seasoning or salt and pepper. Don’t forget to check out the handouts in the course: Sample schedules, Nutrient needs, and the snack guide for more guidance. 

Encourage self-feeding as early as possible

In the course, “The New Mom’s Survival Guide” – I discuss the benefits of self feeding… Adult led puree feedings is fine to start, but we want to encourage self feeding of various textures by 9 months and definitely by one year. Remember, encouraging self-feeding early does not mean your child won’t be selective as they get older… The larger reason for this stems from their taste changes and desire for control.

But, self-feeding gives your child control – and more often than not, picky eating battles come from power struggles. Encouraging self-feeding drives a toddlers natural desire for autonomy…. That feeling of “I do it” – Sure, your 2 or 3 year old may like it when they eat a bite off your spoon, and this is perfectly natural and social, BUT we don’t want to get into a habit that a toddler will only eat if you feed them.

We want to encourage them to be in control – promote self-feeding early and you will encourage autonomy, which allows them something THEY can control in the feeding journey… especially when they feel torn if they are served something they don’t want. And remember, you do not have to do baby led weaning from the start, but try to advance to textured foods and self-feeding principles between 6-9 months. 

Get them involved: 

Exposure to food doesn’t happen only at the dinner table. Exposure to food also involves the concept of food and food preparation. Exposing your child to food starts in infancy. When you’re eating, eat in front of them and ENJOY your food. Narrate how you chew. Bring them into the kitchen when you are preparing food either in a carrier or bouncer. Take them to the grocery store and have them touch and smell the produce you buy. Narrate and label items so they are familiar with this process.

As they become toddlers (and especially after 14 months,) have them help you in the kitchen whether it’s through kneading dough, washing vegetables, putting dishes away, or even playing with plastic dishware. Also, a great strategy may be having your children watch other kids eat. Pull up videos on YouTube and your favorite social media accounts that show other babies and toddlers eating food. Children are great imitators and will like to copy you and other kids. Getting them involved in the concept of eating and the prep of eating is huge for exposure and normalizing meals and variety. 

Let them get messy both at the dinner table and elsewhere 

Oh yes… messiness can make any neat parent cringe – but a mess is extremely important for toddlers to experience. Especially when it comes to encouraging various textures!

You may think it doesn’t matter, but many foods have different textures and eating can be messy. Think about it this way… If we are constantly cleaning our children, cleaning messes, and not allowing them to experience the mess on their face, hands, or during play: We are reaffirming that messes are bad. When, in fact, a mess can be good. So, I say let them get messy. Especially early on. I can assure you by the time they are 2 and a half, their abilities will improve and the mess will get better… of course, the occasional spill will happen here and there – but it’s all part of the journey.

Also, encourage sensory play outside of meals and snacks to normalize mess, normalize things on their hands, and encourage the sensation of different textures.  The pro-mess mindset will also be useful if your child is hesitant to try a food. You can say things like… “let’s squish it with our fingers” “what does it feel like?” while demonstrating this too. Fostering their other senses with food can be a gateway for them to bring it to their mouth. 

Keep introducing: color, seasonings, flavor

You’ve heard this one before! But our children need to be exposed to some foods many times – before they like it or even tolerate it. I still remember when I had scallops as an adult for the first time and I hated it. UGH! I told myself I’ll never have scallops again. And then… years went by and I had it again, prepared differently – And I actually enjoyed it!

For the toddler brain, this is common and sometimes it will take a few times of preparing food in the same way or unique ways for them to learn to like it. With introduction, vary seasonings, colors, AND flavors. If they don’t like it, try it again later. It’s completely okay to take breaks too if they’re refusing a food for a week and come back to it.  

Also remember that bland food tastes terrible. My rule is that if I don’t like the taste of something bland, I will not offer it to my son. So don’t be afraid of seasoning your food as this can help them explore a food in a different way.

An “easy” way to ensure variety is to try to eat foods from different cultures. Various cultures implement various seasonings or proteins – so by diversifying your cultural food palette, you can introduce variety. Consider this example: Mexican night, pizza night, Indian food night, Japanese/or Chinese food night, and so on and so on. But to do this, you also have to model a desire for diversity for them to see it AND get the exposure. It can sometimes take 20-30 exposures for them to even take a bite. But remember your mantra: celebrate them showing up and even smelling it or looking at it! Small wins that become big wins with time!

We’ll dive into more preventing picky eating strategies before they start in part two of this video. See you there!