Minimize Picky Eating
In part 2 we are continuing to discuss ways to minimize picky eating before it begins. Make sure you watch Part 1 before this one if you haven’t already
Treat meals like play time – make it social: no screens, no distractions, no tv
When you are playing with your child, keep the screens off, keeping distractions to a minimum… maybe have some light enjoyable music playing to listen to. Treat meals like play and make it social and make it with minimal distractions. I do know many of my neurodiverse children can benefit from screens, so this is a suggestion to try and err on the side of not having these distractions.
Screens can lead to reduced mindful eating as they are focused on the screen and not on the food, intake, and body cues in front of them. Make sure to keep the meals in the mindset that this is play: allow mess in means of exploration, talk with them about other things, and talk with them about the food without forcing them to eat. Make it playful and allow them to feed you or for you to feed them. This can not only help encourage food, but takes the pressure off of meal times making this enjoyable and a social experience.
As your child gets older, talk about your day, ask them open-ended questions and ask them about their meal. Things like: “Was it what you expected?” “What did it taste like?” “Describe it to me.” Make this a social experience so they don’t dread it and you don’t dread it too. Allow your child to have control by letting them choose the dinner music or what song you will sing during dinner.
Give them control
When talking about food refusal and picky eating, we can’t forget how important providing choice and fostering autonomy is. Like I mentioned, a huge reason children push at meal times is their desire to assert their wants. “I don’t like it.” “I Dont want that!”… Hey, we all have wants and needs. So, give them control when you can:
- “It’s time for dinner. Do you want the green plate or blue plate.” Hold it up if they’re pre-verbal so they can point or gesture
- “It’s time to wash our hands before dinner. Do you want to use this foamy soap or regular soap?”
- “It’s snack time. Our options are cheese or banana peanut butter. Which do you want?”
- For dinner, we can have chicken and rice or a black bean quesadilla”
- “Would you like a sauce with that?”
Giving choices helps your child understand that you are on a team and there is some power they have… even if you are ultimately making the final choice. Remember to try staying with two options for the toddler child. As your child approaches 4 or sooner… if you feel they are a varied eater, you can give them open-ended questions. For my younger school aged kids, I encourage parents to allow the more selective kids to choose what they want for dinner one night a week – then the whole family eats this meal. Taking turns for all kids can help be inclusive and allow power of choice. Just, make sure it’s something you can get or make.
Also, giving cues for a meal’s beginning or ending can help even before they’re talking or using signs like “all done and more”. Using these signs can help them communicate their needs and give them control. If they get fidgety or get up from their toddler table, reiterate and ensure they understanding that means they’re done:
“Looks like you want to get out of the chair. Are you done?”
“If you get up from the table, that means you’re done. Are you done?”
Control is something toddlers crave and by allowing control, you can reduce many of the battles with snacks and meals.
Starting and ending meals (presentation matters)
How you start and end meals AND present the food actually matters from a psychological perspective. Imagine if you aren’t that hungry or more cautious with food and someone loads an entire tray of lasagna in front of your face. This can be overwhelming… Start with smaller portions and ADD ADD ADD. They can always have more and this reduces the overwhelm many toddlers can face. Also, by smaller portions and adding, we can eliminate food waste.
If your child prefers, you can also use divided plates but I encourage a plate where food can mix and divided plates only if the child needs it due to their fear of food touching other foods and associated meltdowns. But more to come in this course about the power of a “No-thank you bowl,” so stay tuned for that
Present the food together and say what everything is like at a restaurant. Offer water with meals versus juice or milk which can be more filling. ”For dinner we are having rice, chicken, and green beans.” “Eat what you like.” No fuss, no drama. Matter of fact statement with no stress. Along with presenting it all together, serve every portion together. If there is dessert, serve it with the main meal to avoid the power struggle of them holding out to get dessert.
In general, I prefer the use of toddler tables after a child turns 14 months. Not only does this provide good back support and body positioning for eating, but it allows autonomy and an ability to start and end the meal on their terms (hey control!). To start the meal, they or you would take the plate to the table themselves and to end the meal, they would bring the plate to the sink or to you. Doing this repetitively provides an opening and closure to the meal time. “This is our meal today. Eat what you would like.” “Great job showing up today!” “I see you’re done? Is your tummy full?” “If you’re done, bring your plate to mommy” or “If you’re done, bring your plate to the sink.”
If you are still using a high chair, verbalizing “here’s your meal” to start and at the end, removing the plate and saying “All done” helps them understand there is a beginning and end to this eating process. ALWAYS thank them for doing this, showing them that you appreciate their cooperation in clean up and also signifying meal is done.
So much of parenting involves respecting our children so they respect us in return. Part of this respect is understanding and respecting their cues. And it can be confusing to figure out if they’re not hungry or they just don’t like what’s being served? Well if they cry at the table when they see a safe food, it likely means they don’t want it. Or they may verbalize this.
IF they just play around with it and do nothing and aren’t in tears, they likely aren’t hungry OR they aren’t sure how to eat this (for our younger toddler babies). You can show them how to eat it, have them feed you or feed them; but remember if they push their face away; don’t pressure.
Remember your mantra: ”I will decide what you eat and when you eat and you are in control of if and how much” To show them you respect their cues, you can repeat phrases like “Is your tummy hungry or full?” “Are you full?” “Do you want more?” “Are you all done?” “The meal is here. You can come back and try it again in a bit if you’d like” With practice and controlling your approach, this will become easier and easier for you even in the midst of food refusal phases.
Remember these practices as we move on to the next module on strategies and tips for the selective or picky eater.