This tool kit will provide information on picky eating, including why it occurs, strategies to try, actions to avoid, and how to help children with disabilities in this area.
Why Does Picky Eating Happen?
Young children, especially those in the toddler years, may become very particular about their food choices. We often refer to that as being a “picky eater”. There are a variety of reasons for this picky eating stage. As children move out of infancy, their rapid growth slows down and they are not as hungry, allowing them to be more selective about what they eat. At this stage of development, they are also becoming more independent and looking for ways to control their environment and experiences. Choosing, or declining, particular foods is one way to do that.
Helpful Habits to Build
Plan Meals and Snacks
Providing a structure of meals and snacks can help children as they learn to experience new foods. Regularly scheduled meals and snacks, without eating in between, can increase the likelihood that children will be hungry when it’s time to eat, and thus more likely to try something new. For a toddler, the ideal length of a meal is 15-20 minutes. If adults and older children remain at the table for a longer amount of time, the toddler can be excused to play quietly nearby.
In terms of the food itself, start with a balanced meal. Learn more in Nutrition for Young Children. As described in Healthy Tips for Picky Eaters, it’s best to plan one meal for the whole family, with no alternate menu items (or whole meals) for young children. Keep portion sizes in mind; toddlers have smaller stomachs and will eat less food. New foods may be offered at the start of the meal, when children are hungrier, and perhaps more likely to try something different.
It takes time for a child to accept a new food. Acceptance is more likely when foods feel familiar. That is, the child sees them in the home often and notices other people eating them. It can take many exposures for a child to feel comfortable with a new food. Parents may offer something 10-15 times before a child tries or enjoys it.
Be mindful of child preferences
A good strategy for introducing new foods is to build on child preferences. Offering at least one food that a child is known to enjoy, alongside a new food, makes trying the “risky” food less intimidating. “Food bridges” can be used to connect foods with common characteristics. For example, a child likes Cheetos, which are orange, cheesy, and crunchy. The adult could offer a baby carrot in cheese dip, which is also orange, cheesy, and crunchy.
Young children appreciate experiences that are fun and creative, and that applies to eating, too. There are several ways to add appeal to a meal. Try adding spices, like cinnamon on apples. Offer a preferred dipping sauce, like ketchup, to accompany new foods. Do a fun presentation, like using berries to make a face on a pancake. Turn larger foods into finger foods – sandwich strips instead of a full sandwich. Give foods a more creative name; “broccoli in ranch dip” can become “trees covered in snow”!
Offer Ownership and Control
Children may be more likely to try a new food when they have ownership and control over the full culinary experience. There are many ways to involve them along the way. Let the child choose a new healthy food at the grocery store or help pick a vegetable from the garden. Involve children in menu planning. “We are having chicken tonight. What fruit should we serve with it?” Keep kid-friendly cook books in the kitchen and let children assist in the cooking process. Learn more in How to Handle Picky Eaters. Involve the children in setting the table or serving the food. Along the way, offer choices. “These pita chips we made look delicious! Should we serve them with yogurt dip or hummus?”
Be a Role Model
Children look to the important adults in their life as role models for all types of behavior, including how to approach meals. Adults can model healthy eating habits by serving, and eating, a variety of healthy foods, including some “new” menu items from time to time. Using self-talk to narrate could be very helpful to children as they develop a more adventurous mindset towards eating. “Our neighbor dropped off some cucumbers from her garden. These look different than the mini cucumbers we usually have for snack. But I like those…so I bet I’ll like these, too. I’ll start with a small serving and I think it will taste great with that dip we made last night!”
Actions to Avoid
There are many strategies that can help a child on the road to enjoying more foods, but there are also some things that can make the journey more difficult. As stated in Research-Based Mealtime Hacks for “Picky” Eaters, “It’s a parent’s job to provide a variety of healthy foods in age-appropriate servings at mealtimes and snack times. It’s the child’s job to decide what, and how much, to eat.” Keeping that adage in mind can be very useful. As noted in Tips for Feeding Picky Eaters, if a child refuses to eat, the adult should stay calm and provide no reaction at all.
If a child resists eating the foods that are offered, the adult should not take on the role of “short order cook” and provide a separate meal. But it is also not helpful to force a child to eat. This will likely increase a power struggle and make the situation worse. The use of bribes, rewards, pressure, or negotiation tactics are not helpful either. In the long term, these things increase power struggles over eating certain foods, and may lead to power struggles in other aspects of life. Offers such as, “Two more bites of broccoli until you get a cookie” may encourage the child to identify some foods (e.g., broccoli) as punishment and others (like cookies) as rewards. Learn more in 10 Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters.
Supporting Children with Disabilities
Consider Medical Conditions and Sensory Preferences
Children with disabilities, such as autism, may experience more difficulty trying or enjoying new foods. Caregivers should first work with a doctor to rule out any medical conditions. Learn more in Autism and Picky Eating. Some children may experience medical issues (such as an upset stomach) when eating certain foods but are unable to communicate that to caregivers.
It is also important to keep known food sensitives in mind when exposing a child to new foods. For example, if a child has difficulty eating soft or mushy foods, it would be better to introduce carrots as cold, crunchy vegetables, rather than soft and cooked. If a child resists cold beverages, hot chocolate may be a more preferred new beverage than chocolate milk.
Adjust Expectations and Strategies
Children with disabilities may need more time expand their repertoire of foods. Sticking to a routine and schedule can be even more important, as it reduces uncertainties and anxiety about when eating will happen. The use of instructional strategies, such as visual cues or first/then plans to present an eating experience, can help the child understand expectations. Learn more in Yuck! I Don’t Eat That! Nutrition & Selective Eating in Young Children with Autism.
If a child is not ready to try new foods by tasting them, adults can encourage exploration of the foods using other senses, such as sight, touch, and smell. Adults may need to offer very small portions and do that many more times than the 10-15 times often useful for children without disabilities. It is important to acknowledge the smallest steps of progress that occur along the journey. “You were able to touch that lettuce leaf, dip it in ranch, and smell it. Great job exploring a new food!” These recognitions provide encouragement and support.
- Resource List: Nutrition for Young Children