Picky Eating Playbook
In Module 3, we talked about setting the foundation to reduce food refusal and picky eating but even with all that – it can happen. Like I said, I want to manage your expectations around kids. They dont always follow the book…er virtual course. But, I got you covered!
In this module, I’ll go over strategies and scripts to encourage trying new foods. Remember to build on the strategies presented in module 3. Keep in mind that the goal isn’t that they gobble up a whole meal or something new right away. The goal is repetition and baby steps to get them to explore new things!
Remember to also check out my handout in this course–Common questions in toddler feeding for more common questions and trouble-shooting tips
Assess environment and the high chair.
So, let’s say you have a child who seems fidgety, uninterested in meals and won’t eat….
Try to make sure distractions are limited and the seating is okay. After 12-14 months, your toddler can get more fidgety in the high chair. They may bounce around and hate being strapped in. I get it! They want to be free – hello autonomy desire! Consider either a booster seat, or better yet a weaning table.
Like I mentioned in the last module, a weaning table is great to provide autonomy in those early toddler years. You can create a family meal concept by sitting next to them or pulling a stool to their table.
If you keep them in a high chair, consider a foot rest for your high chair – it provides better stability – also the toddler may realize they don’t like their feet hanging and need some support to eat. But also, some toddlers will not like this and bounce off more, so remember to do what works for your child.
If you have a family pet that is distracting during meal time, consider putting the dog in an enclosed safe area during the meal. Limit noises you can control like loud TVs or music (we can’t control other children and that’s okay!)
Also, make sure you are following the mindset principles and all strategies in the last module like offering variety, no pressure, and making it social.
Safe foods and pitfalls
You may have heard the concept of a “safe food.” This is a food we offer our kiddos during a meal that is usually a slam dunk option. It’s something they generally like that ensures there is something familiar on their plate with something new. I encourage safe foods if you find yourself in a period of food refusal. This ensures an option for them so they have a familiar option.
Here’s what an example could look like: let’s say you made a noodle dish that is new for your child. You would place a little noodles next to some veggies and a familiar item which could be mac and cheese because your kiddo loves mac and cheese. They yell “I don’t want noodle!” You calmly say “I see you’re unsure about the noodle. Well for dinner we have noodles, veggie, and mac and cheese.“You can eat what you want on the plate. You can try the noodles or not. It’s your choice.”
But, safe foods can also have some pitfalls:
Issue #1: Their safe food can change over time because… well, even their preferences for the types of food they like can change. So I recommend to have about 3-5 safe foods in your aresenal to rotate if you see refusal. It’s ok if this list varies from time to time or child to child. And remember, if they refuse a safe food–they’re probably not hungry and remember mantra 1 about the division of responsibilities from module 2. If you present a safe food and they refuse it, don’t go into the kitchen to get another safe food. Repeat: “This is what we’re having for dinner. Fill your belly with what you like!”
Issue #2: They only eat safe foods and wont touch anything else and are asking for MORE safe foods. There’s two ways to approach this: You can keep offering more safe food, this strategy ensures they trust you and the feeding relationship and there is no pressure. Serving the safe food NEXT to the other foods like you started the meal.
Then for some kids over 2.5 years, you can try the following – which does also work if gently stated: “I see you really liked your mac and cheese. Fill your belly with what you want on your plate and if you’re still hungry we can have more.” I don’t look at this as bribery as you have presented all the options and they see all the options exist together. If they say no “I don’t want it,” Model the eating of the new foods, squish it with them, ask them “What does it feel like?” “What does it smell like?” If they’re still resistant, say “Thank you for trying. Here is more mac and cheese. Listen to your belly and eat what you want.” My goal here is to encourage exposure and perhaps “playing’ with the new food even if they don’t eat it before offering more safe foods. If they finish the safe food after this round and want MORE, I encourage you to remind them what’s on their plate. “That’s all the mac and cheese for today. If your belly is still full, you can eat what’s left on your plate.’”
The No thank you bowl
This is my favorite strategy and one that can really help fuel their desire for control. If you present the meal and they say “I DON’T WANT THAT!!” as they point to the broccoli. You calmly say. “I see you don’t want that today. “This is our meal for today. Whatever you don’t want you can put in this bowl right here” and lay a bowl to the side of the plate. The concept helps because sometimes kids either don’t like food touching or don’t like a non-preferred food on their plate.
This amazing strategy gives them control but also allows them visual exposure on the table and sensory exposure through smell. I also encourage you – the adult- to excitedly eat from the no thank you bowl. “mmm woww this is so yummy.” and offer it to a partner or another adult who will happily take it too and offer it to your child. Remember, they like to mimic us and with enough repetition, they can come around. SOMETIMES, you may even see them dig into the no thank you bowl. I also like this strategy because it ensures YOU are not picking things out for them: you’re showing them the bowl and letting them have control. This is a great strategy for children with certain sensory issues–giving them control. Keep your demeanor calm, and playful and not full of pressure. Remember, to not be disappointed if half the meal ended up in the no thank you bowl. Say things like “I see you didn’t want to try that today. Is your belly full? Thank you for showing up and eating”. CELEBRATE THE SMALL WINS!
Utilize condiments and dips
Condiments and dips get a bad rap but they can serve as a great vehicle to try new foods and let’s be real, some foods taste really good with dips – hello broccoli, celery, and carrots and ranch!
Let’s imagine you lay down chicken, steamed potatoes, and broccoli. Your child says “I dont want it!” You say “I see you’re unsure. This is our meal today.” “What would you like to add to this meal? “ Fight the urge to go to the kitchen and bring out a new meal but ask what you can ADD to it. “Would you like some ranch or some ketchup?” Keep your tone matter of fact. Our son Ryaan went through a refusal of broccoli and carrots, something he used to love. We waited it out and he still didn’t want it. One day I was eating carrots and ranch (modeling my love for veggies). He came up and asked for it. And then he kept asking for carrots and ranch and then eventually he dropped the need for ranch. Don’t fear condiments but use them strategically.
Toddlers LOVE silly. I mentioned in Module 3 that socialization is helpful and to level up on that..make mealtimes silly. Not only does this REDUCE pressure which is key but it makes the meal more playful and less stressful. If your child is refusing cheese. Ask them “Who is a cheese monster? Is mommy a cheese monster?? Are YOU a cheese monster.” and take a piece of cheese and chomp chomp chomp it. Another strategy is to play appropriate games: “Let’s see who can count the most peas!” “Let’s see who can chomp their broccoli like a dinosaur.” BE SILLY and make it a fun communal game with your kiddo. This is especially important when you feel power struggles building. When you feel the pressure building from you and onto them, breathe, step back and get silly. Practice feeding them or have them feed you. Pretend you will bite their finger, but don’t actually do it. Even if they don’t eat, the pressure has been lightened and this is a hug step in the right direction
Make food look fun
Interestingly of all my tips, this is the one I have not personally had to do yet but one I love to share. Children do like silly things so sometimes presenting the food in fun ways can help. Perhaps cutting your apple slices shaped like fries, or placing your broccoli like a smiley face on a plate. This makes the appearance of unfamiliar or undesired foods more welcoming for a child. Better yet, ask them how they want to prepare it and have them join you. Using shape cutters for food, placing things in smiley faces, etc can all help lighten the mood and make the food inviting!
Mix up timing of intro
Have a child who is not wanting to eat veggies for dinner? Switch it up and try it for breakfast or an afternoon snack. For breakfast, many kids have an increased appetite in the morning and even if they don’t eat the veggie, they may because of hunger. If they dont? Hey, you got an exposure!
Also strategize and give veggies as a pre-dinner snack If they’re asking for dinner because they’re hungry. Lay down a bowl of veggies and say “Dinner is almost ready: If you’re hungry, here you go!”
Space it out
Let’s say you have a kiddo who loves eggs and now just hates them. Yells and screams “No egg.” What the heck happened? They ate it for a week straight? Remember to Give it a break. Just like us, they can get tired eating the same thing every day so offering them two options for meals or snacks helps in this situation OR giving one item they have grown really to not love a break for a week before you re-introduce. When it’s finally time to reintroduce follow all the strategies mentioned already in regards to portion sizes and making it matter of fact
Offer the food in other locations
Sometimes the dinner table can be associated with stress. Setting up a picnic or eating in a safe space with you is an option. They don’t like veggies on the dining table? Try a veggie snack on the couch. From a safety perspective, make sure they are chewing and not bouncing around or running to reduce choking risk
Lean on reverse psychology
Reverse psychology is when you tell your child the opposite of what you want to do. It would go like this: “Don’t you dare eat those carrots because then you will get too strong!” When they eat it: “Omg, you’re eating carrots! You’re getting soooo strong!” “You’re not going to eat those carrots are you? No way!” This not only adds levity, but hey sometimes kids want to do the opposite of what you’re saying!
Pausing is my ultimate parenting hack. Pausing means when your child gets upset, you as the parent MUST pause and take a breath before you respond and don’t react. Reaction can look like this: “CMON just eat it!” “Why are you like this?” “Your brother is eating it” “You’re so picky!!” All the things I’ve asked us not to do already. If you have a pre-verbal child fuss during a meal. Pause. Verbalize what you see “I see you are trying to figure it out. Take some time. I’m here.” Rather than staring them down while they eat – which is non-verbal pressure, go to the sink in the kitchen but don’t leave the room for safety reasons. Redirect your non-verbal pressure and fixation and to take a deep breath. If you verbal child is upset, still remember to pause and take those deep breaths and remember your mantras. In module 5, I’ll go over some scenarios and scripts for meal-time metldowns.
Focus on baby steps:
Have a child who is very sensitive to new things? Or maybe they have sensory issues? Use the tips mentioned so far, but also consider focusing on a step wise approach. Sensory issues to food can present as sensitivity to textures where they only like puree and when something like meat or steamed carrot or even cooked pasta makes them repetitively gag. There is also sensitivity to flavor or smell. Start by going step by step: Focus on sitting and looking, then moving to kissing, then moving to licking, and then taking a bite with you, and then on their own.
There is NO rush to move through these phases. Use empowering phrases such as “Today we’re having pasta with your mashed potatoes. I know its new.” “You’re still learning. You showed up and I’m proud of you” Focus on each step and move to the next step when you see them accomplish the last. PRAISE PRAISE PRAISE! Verbally encourage them for the baby steps and what you see them accomplishing
In part two of this module, we’ll dive into the DONT’S of the picky eating playbook.