A few months ago, I shared a post on Family Style Meals to encourage picky eaters to explore new foods and it was a hit, to say the least! If you have a selective eater in your home, let this be a comfort in knowing you are not alone. I’ve spoken with so many parents who struggle daily to get their child to try new foods. They’re frustrated by the dinnertime battles and worry that their child isn’t getting the nutrients they need to thrive. But at the root of their frustration is not knowing what to do about it.
Picky eating is usually a multi-faceted issue and it isn’t linear. Your child may go through periods where they are more open to trying new meals and others where they are religious about a very short list of acceptable foods. One thing I will say, to help you better understand these phases, is to pay attention to what’s going on in your child’s life. Are they going through a transition? Could they be looking for areas in their life where they can exercise more control (i.e. food choices)? Ebbs and flow in a young child’s eating is totally normal for a number of reasons, and life changes are one of them. So tune into what’s going on externally to help you better understand what’s going on at the dinner table.
"Could they be looking for areas in their life where they can exercise more control (i.e. food choices)?"
Today, I want to equip you with another strategy to use with your selective eater that will not only encourage food exploration, but also take the pressure off you as the parent. Tonight, whether you are plating your child’s food, or you are serving family style, make sure you are offering at least one safe food. This is something you know your child recognizes and enjoys. Perhaps it’s a raw vegetable, a fruit, crackers, cheese, etc. It doesn’t matter if it “goes” with the meal. The point of this food is to provide your child with a sense of familiarity, comfort and trust.
"Make sure you are offering at least one safe food... The point of this food is to provide your child with a sense of familiarity, comfort and trust."
Hear me out: you decided to get creative in the kitchen and try a new recipe. It’s a little out of the box for your family, but you know it’s going to be delicious. Your child sees this unfamiliar dish and immediately feels anxious. Thoughts that might come up for them: What is that? It smells funny. Why is it that colour? How is it going to feel in my mouth? That’s scary. I am definitely not touching it.
Great. They’ve already made their mind up before even considering giving it a try.
Now picture this: you place this new meal on the table, but beside it, you also serve a small plate of raw carrots, cashews, sliced strawberries and other acceptable foods, available to anyone who would like some. The anxiety of a perceived expectation to eat a new, scary dish is immediately diffused. There are other foods available they know and enjoy, and this comfort may allow them the confidence to try something new as well.
Another way this could look is to make up a plate for your child that includes some of the carrots, cashews and sliced strawberries plus a very small portion of the new food. Offering just a small portion of a new food helps it appear less “scary” to your child. They aren’t staring at a huge portion that inadvertently tells them what they’re expected to eat. It’s less intimidating, plus it’s served with “safe foods” that they know they like. All in all, a much less intimidating meal but one that has the power to expand their pallet.
This is a plate I served my daughter last week. We were having shrimp tacos. Tacos? Yes. Tacos with shrimp? Scary. So, I made her a simple cheese quesadilla (safe food) and served a small portion of the other foods on the side, including the shrimp, chopped finely for easy exploration.
The next tip I want to share is to let your child play with their food! I know this goes against the messaging we grew up with, that food is to be eaten, not played with. But eating is a 5-senses experience. Beyond simply tasting, children need to look at, smell, touch and hear their food and they do this by exploring it fully. The first time you offer your child a new food, you might notice they push it around on the plate a bit, or even give it a little sniff. Even though they didn’t taste it, it’s all part of the experience of making the food familiar to them. You can even ask questions about the food that doesn’t leave your child feeling pressured to eat it, but encourages them to explore it. “What colour is that vegetable? Does it make a funny noise when you stir it around? What does it smell like?” Questions like these get your child thinking about other aspects of a food, rather than just… what is this going to taste like? Let them play! (Note: depending on your child, you may not want to talk about the food at all and allow your child to explore it in peace. In the meantime, you talk about your day, what your’re looking forward to, a funny joke you heard, etc. Anything but food. So, listen to your intuition and choose the strategy that’s right for your child)
"Eating is a 5-senses experience. Beyond simply tasting, children need to look at, smell, touch and hear their food and they do this by exploring it fully."
Picky eating can be a complex subject, but collecting tools for your toolbox and gaining a better understanding of what actually drives the behaviour is key to making it less stressful for everyone. Incorporate these tips into how you approach meal time and watch your picky eater blossom into a food explorer.