Helping Picky Eaters Expand Their Diet

  • Moira Sullivan, MS, OTR/L

                “Every family has a kid who won’t eat.”  That famous line from the 1983 movie “A Christmas Story” rings true with so many parents as they watch their child consistently refuse to try new foods or to eat all but a very few food items.

                The holidays are upon us, and each celebration has its own traditional menu.  Thanksgiving with its turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.  At Hanukkah, many families serve potato latkes, roast brisket or chicken, spinach or asparagus, and donuts.  Some families traditionally serve a seafood feast for holidays, particularly here in Northern California where the holidays fall in the middle of the traditional crab season.  Fruit and vegetables of the season are predominant in things like apple pie, pumpkin bread, persimmon cake and other desserts, and spinach, fennel, zucchini and broccoli come more into the forefront in fall cooking.  Not to mention the spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves, which are staples in foods, served in fall and winter in many cultures.  A child who refuses to eat these types of foods misses out on part of the shared family holiday experience.

    Here are some ways we can we set up the environment to encourage children to expand the variety of their diet:

    Have children be part of the cooking process.  This can be as simple as helping stir ingredients in a bowl, pouring spices into batter, and the like.  If your child wants to lick the bowl, so much the better. Often times children “eat” visually.  If something looks funny to them, they are reluctant to try it.  Involving them in the entire choosing and cooking process will let them get a sense of how food changes the way it looks, while still staying what it is.  Even though rejecting a food item based on how it looks before trying

    it makes no logical sense to most adults, it is a common thing for children to do.

    Allow your child to choose their food, within limits, of course.  For example, they can choose a fruit, a vegetable or a side dish.  If this is followed up with them helping prepare what they have chosen, there is a greater chance that they will try it.

    Plant a small vegetable/fruit garden if your home and garden space (and schedule) allows. Have your child help choose what is planted.  Keep them involved in caring for and harvesting the plants, then preparing them to eat.

    Start with something your child already likes, and build on it.  For example, a child who likes to eat string cheese may be more willing to try another type of cheese, which looks similar.  A child who will eat cake may be more willing to try pumpkin bread.

    Eat what you would like your child to eat. Watching parents and siblings eat a variety of foods and make sensible choices encourages children to emulate healthy eating patterns.

    When all else fails, keep trying.  It is common for children to reject a new food item the first 20, 30 or even 40 times it is presented.

    Moira Sullivan is the Owner/Director of Whole Kids Therapy. She writes about  motor skills and sensory integration challenges.

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