Picky Can Be Fun!
*This series is intended to help bring ideas to support food education, and wellness in families; it is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure diseases. Please always consult your practitioners if you have questions or concerns.
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I was recently visiting with a friend and, while down one of our many “rabbit hole” discussions, we of course hit the topic of mealtimes, feeding, and picky eating. I am reminded every day that mealtimes look different to everyone, but I must admit, I love that about what I do. It stirs the creative juices and gives me the freedom to be outlandish with ideas for families that are really struggling with feeding and mealtimes with picky eaters. When it comes down to it, families with only a couple of children don’t have as many variables as larger families or families that have a variety of age groups in the house. With different ages and developmental stages, meals can span the course of a couple of hours if you have little babies that wake early and then school aged kids where the school day starts at different times for different grades. Maybe you have a family of athletes and meals are eaten in the car on the way to and from practices, or someone is eating alone after a late game. Or, maybe, you just have more than two kids who are different ages and don’t like the same thing. Whatever your situation looks like, trying to maintain healthy, balanced meals and lifestyles gets tricky and is probably stressful. Enter:
“The Picky Eater”
First off, I don’t necessarily agree with the term “picky eater.” Children’s taste buds develop differently and change with age. Some of what you may be experiencing with your children, when they turn away from food that they once liked, is part of a development stage. Infants are born with fully functional tastebuds; however, they are different than that of an adult. Infants and children have a higher concentration of taste buds and sweeter foods are more appealing. When you first start introducing food to your little one and they turn away from a food, do not get discouraged, I bet you didn’t know it can take up to 25 tries for a baby to eat a new food! I like to tell families this should be a rule you live by. If your child is going down the road of your definition of “picky eating,” take a step back, take a breath, and start to play some games. Keep things light and interesting and stick to the rule of offering the foods that they are turning away from in as many varieties and styles you can think. I understand that texture plays a role here too, but you can play with textures of the foods that are difficult, or you can offer a comparable item which may also help you determine what the real texture culprit is. Here are a few ideas I like to share to help families when it comes to children who are most likely leaning towards “picky eater territory.”
- Have kids play with their foods:
Children are very sensory, utilizing every sense is how they learn. Letting them get to know new foods through play is a way for them to familiarize themselves with what the food is. It is also a great way for them to learn textures. Playing with food doesn’t come without a few bites or handfuls and if they turn away from those foods, that doesn’t mean they don’t like the food, they may just be more interested in what the food feels like. Continue to offer those foods prepared in different ways and encourage them to continue the play.
One of our favorite foods to offer for play is mashed potatoes and peas. Our children love peas, but mashed potatoes were strange for them. I would teach them to hide their peas in their mashed potatoes and then we would use our spoon to excavate and pick out the peas. While grabbing the peas, it was hard not to have some of the mashed potatoes on them and soon enough, they were licking mashed potatoes off their fingers.
- Talk about foods in silly ways:
Stories are something children love and making up characters and silly stories around the food you are serving at that meal is a great way to engage with your children while hopefully keeping everyone occupied for the entire mealtime. Maybe you talk about giving “Mr. Broccoli” a haircut with your teeth and then tell your children to style their broccoli’s hair with their teeth for a family hair style competition.
- Involve your kids in meal prep:
This one can be a blessing and a curse but if you make it an activity that replaces other play time, you might find you have some great sous chefs that are just itching to get involved and it may make meal prep easier on you. Our littles are infamous for stealing food off the cutting board as I chop and this has been one of the best ways for them to taste food in the raw. This comes with some strong flavors so if your children are turning away from that, ask them for ideas of how they think you could improve the flavor or how that food should be cooked.
- Be honest about what foods are:
Telling kids salmon is “pink chicken” isn’t going to help you in the long run. You want your children to trust you about their food. If they are asking about what something is, tell them honestly and if they say “that’s yucky,” you can talk about the food and give them a chance to inspect it. In the early stages of food introduction, you want to keep it light and don’t make a big deal when they make a face or a comment. Then, talk about what would make it yummy and try it the way they want to make it. Watching you prepare it the way they asked, gives them some authority and if they see you are willing to try it, they will likely be too. Be adventurous together!
- Try a color wheel or color board:
We like to make color wheels or color boards of food where we pick one color food and find as many foods as possible that color in our pantry and refrigerator. We lay everything out and try to make some games around it. Not only is this a great way to work on color for younger kids, but it is also a great way to have an in-home scavenger hunt, as well as talk about the foods on the board. Sometimes we have a contest to see who can make the wildest creation with the mixture.
Remember, if you are really stuck, sometimes taking food outside changes the mood, which changes the tastebuds and makes it a little more of an adventure. Take them on an eating and walking adventure when distracted by something they are more likely to pop something in their mouth without overthinking if they will like it or not.
Lastly, parents, just like all the seasons of parenthood, crazy mealtimes, frustrating eaters, and the stress around healthy lifestyles will shift and calm. Make sure you are taking time for you, to keep your mindset strong and confident. You are doing everything you can for your families and that should be enough. Despite what you may be going through, our children are getting what they need to grow and continue to develop so do not get discouraged.
I have a few more great ideas in my bag of tricks for picky eaters, if you are really struggling with encouraging a variety of foods feel free to reach out and let’s talk!
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