Winning Over Picky Eaters: Improving Eating Habits

In this, the second installment of a three part series on Winning Over Picky Eaters, Desi
Horsman helps us to look at strategies
to improve eating habits.

Children with sensory-based feeding difficulties need a great deal of exposure to a food before they are willing to consider tasting it. Mealtimes have to be unthreatening because the sensory child is on guard from uncomfortable sensory experiences.  They need to feel relaxed and safe; then they might risk participating in a new experience. They limit their food choices to a small group of ‘familiar” foods that they experience as safe.

When a child feels pressure from a parent, anxiety is increased leading to tension in a child’s mouth.  The jaw clenches and the mouth stops moving and food just sits at back of tongue and the child gags, which in turn creates panic. In the end that particular food becomes dangerous and has to be avoided in the future. This creates fear of food and eating.

picky eaters

Start with what’s Familiar and Build from There

Make a list of what food and drinks your child likes and finds acceptable. Then organise these sensory properties such as texture, taste, colour or smell:

  • Crunchy, crispy, mushy, soft or smooth
  • Strong tastes, bland or sweet
  • Foods with similar colours

Now find foods in similar categories e.g. potato chips – add salty food or crackers and try to replace with a healthier version.

  • If they eat pureed fruit of a certain colour, find another fruit of similar colour; so the primary change would be a slight difference in the sweet taste. Broccoli would be very different in both colour and taste and would represent too drastic a change for a sensitive (suspicious) child. Then try blending two foods they already like together.
  • Crunchy foods are recommended to facilitate proprioception which helps a child become sensory organised. The pressure on the jaw from chewing will help calm the child. Raw veggies, toast, crackers and some fruit are great for a good crunch. For some sensory children, chewing is difficult so they need encouragement in this area. The well meaning parent might give sweet treats to entice the child to learn to chew and eventually they will refuse all healthy foods so be careful of this.
  • If a child only likes smooth food, slowly add textured foods to their usually mushy meal.
  • Some separate textures during meals – don’t mix mash with gravy.

Make Very Small Changes when a New Food is Introduced

picky eaters

Small gradual changes are always easier to accept than bigger sudden ones (this works for anyone changing a diet and in many other areas of our lives too). Drastic changes will be met with strong resistance. Start by finding a new brand or slight change in the variety of food that is acceptable to the child with only a slight change in texture or taste at first.

For example apples could be red, green, yellow soft or firm. As an idea try changing from that to a pear which will be easier than changing to a litchi or a kiwi. If white cheese is a favourite introduce different white cheeses. Pretzels can be long, round, thin, fat, and different patterns.

Place a new food on the other side of the table, furthest away from them and gradually bring it closer. Some kids are completely averse to certain foods and they won’t even handle them at the table. It will help if the child has had exposure to that food through play previously, before introducing to the table. The food needs to be offered many times without the pressure of eating it. Even if it is rejected – keep offering it – because it eventually becomes familiar.

Cooking and Playing with Food will Help Build Familiarity

Kids love to chop, mix and stir and while cooking they might even lick a finger so involve them as much as possible in preparing foods and dishing up. Growing their own vegetables and herbs in the garden and picking them is another way to nurture a good relationship with healthy food.

When playing with food, they know they are not expected to taste or eat the food, so they don’t feel any pressure while they are experiencing different textures, colours and smells of unfamiliar foods. You could begin play with plastic foods and then slowly replace with the real version. You could also give them different ingredients to play cook with. They are more likely to eat foods that they have seen and played with many times before. Remember what they see on your plate will also have an impact. Take them shopping and involve them in what ingredients are needed for the meals they will help prepare. You can even read stories about food and look at and identify pictures together.

Using a variety of cut vegetables to make different forms and patterns is always fun. Do not at any point give in to the urge to encourage your child to taste any of the foods they are playing with. They will then become suspicious and realise this is just a ploy to get them to eat, instead of just enjoying the exploration.

Managing Mealtimes

Sensory based feeding issues create highly stressful mealtimes which negatively impact the entire family. Mealtimes can be noisy with conversations and utensils working and even the sound of their own chewing can bother some sensory children. Eating in front of the TV creates distractions and sensory overload affecting the already overworked nervous system. Ensure dinner time is peaceful and filled with pleasant conversation. If as a parent you are worried and anxious, your child will pick up on it and not feel safe and secure, which means they’ll be very reluctant to try new foods.

Don’t let your child eat alone. If it’s not possible to have a full meal with them, have a healthy little snack that’s similar to what they’re eating. Eating should be something we do together, not something they have to do.

Think about how often your child sees you eating? Breakfast is often in a rush and moms forget to eat, or have coffee and a meal on the run. Lunch is very seldom a meal that we sit down to together. The afternoons are often spent rushing around to extra murals and having a snack on the go. If your child does not see you eating healthy foods, it is unlikely that they will eat them. If they see you enjoying food they will be encouraged to do the same. New and unfamiliar environments may affect eating, like eating at a restaurant or other people’s houses so be aware of this – particularly if you have a sensory child.

What to Avoid at Mealtimes

picky eaters

  • Coaxing a child to eat by playing the classic airplane game and any other creative ideas to get an extra mouthful in. You land up with more playing than eating – but more importantly it becomes far more fun not to eat so mom can give extra attention and play.
  • Nagging throughout the meal for them to eat. Say gently “remember to take a bite”.
  • Bribery with dessert or other rewards gives the message that if I hold out on eating there will be a reward (another way to control you and get what they want). At the same time growing into a healthy strong child should be the reward. And they should be eating because they are hungry and food is delicious. Healthy children do not starve themselves! If a sweet or dessert is a reward they will start associating veggies as the baddies and grow up comfort eating as a reward.
  • Other tactics like “have a bite for mommy, have one for granny,” etc.
  • Do not praise them for eating all their food. Don’t give attention to eating or not eating. It should be a normal part of everyday routine rather than an event that needs praise or affirmation. Some children thrive on extra attention, even if it’s not positive attention and will continue the behaviour that will gain it.
  • Never force feed a food if your child has rejected it.
  • Don’t get into big discussions about eating and how fussy your child is especially at mealtimes.

Sensory Issues

  • Olfactory dysfunction means that some smells might make a child nauseas or have extreme reactions. When faced with certain foods the child might feel panicked and have a complete aversion, the same way you would if you had to eat a live worm. Be understanding (even if you can’t relate) and respectful and be very aware of your tone of voice. This process can take a long time, be patient and persevere.
  • Sensory children and picky eaters do not like change so they can easily become addicted to refined carbs and sweet foods. Try not to present the limited foods in the same way all the time. Make a few changes so the plate looks a little different yet safe and familiar.

Expert Contributor: Clinical Nutritionist, speaker and wellness expert – Desi Horsman

Read the rest of this series

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