Picky Eaters


Many children go through phases of “picky eating” at some point in their lives. For some, this is a short-lived phase and for others, it can be a life-long struggle. There are many factors that contribute to picky eating, including oral motor development, sensory processing, behavioral issues, social anxiety, gastrointestinal problems, and more! A speech-language pathologist or occupational therapist who specializes in feeding therapy can help address picky eating in a therapy setting, but there are many things parents and caregivers can do at home to encourage the child to expand his food repertoire. Here are nine ideas to get you started:

  1. Make it a game!5132157

Using fun games can be a great motivator for trying new foods. Roll a dice or spin a spinner to determine what to take a bite of next! You can also check out some cool plates, like this one from Fred and Friends, that encourage exciting eating at every turn.

  1. Explore foods without pressure.

There are lots of ways to explore new foods beyond taste- look, smell, touch, poke, pinch, stir… Instead of telling your child to “eat this,” encourage them to “check it out.” Build a tower out of fruit or skewer veggies on a wooden stick or paint a picture using different kinds of yogurt. Make a funny face out of some favorite foods and some new ones! Get creative and have fun, and your little one might just decide to take a taste!

  1. Take them shopping.

Taking your young child grocery shopping might sound like more work for you, but the supermarket is a fabulous place for your kiddo to see all different kinds of foods! Who knows what color or texture will grab his attention! Send him on a mission to pick out something fun to try this week. Getting to pick something out himself might be more motivating.

  1. Make a bite chart.try_something_new_chart_-_image

For many kids, having a visual system can be very motivating. It sets the expectation without engaging in back and forth negotiation. Aviva Allen, kids’ nutritionist, has a great deal of resources on her site, including the bite chart pictured here. Bite charts are also great because they give the child something to work towards, decreasing the feeling of this being “work” and increasing “fun.”

  1. Don’t “eat” it- “try” it.

Avoid saying things like “Just eat it” or “Take a few bites.” Instead, talk about new foods in terms of “trying it.” You can say “Give it a try and then you can decide whether or not you want to eat it today.” You can also offer choices of different ways to try (ex: “Do you want to lick it or tap it on your teeth?”).

  1. food-pyramidTalk about the food groups.

Regularly discuss the different food groups with your child, as well as how different kinds of food benefit our bodies. Talk about how grains give us energy to run faster and milk helps our bones stay strong. Guide your child to associate healthy eating with a body that feels good.

  1. Get in the kitchen!

Hire yourself a mini-sous chef! Have your child help you stir, add, chop and sprinkle. Smelling, touching and looking at the food will expose them to new flavors and textures without any pressure to eat it. Allow your little one to help you make decisions as you prepare the meal- should we cut the tomato in little pieces or big pieces? Which should we add first- the corn or the peppers? Should we use long noodles or bowtie pasta? This gives a sense of control, and provides an awesome avenue for exploration!

  1. Dip it!

Dips can be a great catalyst for trying new foods. Find a dip that your child loves- peanut butter, hummus, Nutella, sour cream, ketchup….anything! Dip some preferred and some non-preferred foods and let your child tell you which tastes best.

  1. Make it a family affair!

Picky eaters are famously good at isolating themselves from family meal. Create a culture of adventurous eating by instituting at least one family meal a day. Encourage all family members (siblings included!) to participate in the above-mentioned strategies. This not only takes the pressure off of your picky-eater, it also creates a positive meal time experience for everyone.

It is important to keep in mind that we ALL have preferences when it comes to our diets. Think about which foods you love most, and what foods send you running for the hills.  For many of us, we have acquired tastes for certain foods over time. Remember the first time you tried coffee? Your child is no different. This is why continued exposure to a wide variety of foods is crucial to expand their repertoire. He might reject a food 19 times, and then decide to give it a whirl the 20th time he encounters it. By creating a comfortable, fun, safe environment for your child to explore foods, you are putting your child in the driver’s seat of his own diet and sending him on his way to better eating habits. Bon Appetit!


-Elizabeth Clark McKenzie, MS, CCC-SLP


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