Almost every night for dinner for more than a year, my 2-year-old daughter food jagged on Cheerios and milk.
Kids who “food jag” rely heavily on a preferred, familiar food. Although this is a common stage in toddlers, it was frustrating and stressful to go through. I couldn't understand why trying a green bean was such a big deal.
Sure, I could have refused my daughter's daily request for her favorite cereal. But a voice inside my head told me there was more to this picky eating stage than just a 2-year-old exerting some control over dinnertime.
In fact, my daughter’s picky eating turned out to be due to a mild sensory issue, one that became apparent when I tended to be a more creative cook.
Still, I kept offering her new foods, and encouraged her to take small tastes. I decided to focus on what she could do each day — not on what she refused to do. For example, I praised her for how well she learned to pour milk from a half-gallon carton and barely spill. And I never called her “picky." Instead, I declared her the best taste-tester ever … even if she only took the tiniest taste of my latest culinary creation.
Shortly after age 3, my daughter began taking more of whatever I served. And eventually her obsession with cereal subsided. She soon branched out to what she called “big girl foods” like raw broccoli, lasagna, and salad (OK, only with ranch dressing … but hey, it was salad).
Now, my once-picky toddler is an adventurous eater in her 20s. But sharing dinnertime with a picky eater and a yellow box of Cheerios taught me some important lessons.
In fact, the experience sparked my interest in more severe feeding challenges, and today I’m a feeding specialist, author, and speech language pathologist who helps parents of picky eaters and those with feeding difficulties.
Here, I'm sharing seven basic tips I used to raise my own adventurous eater that I often recommend to other parents:
1. Keep portion sizes small.
I recommend putting 1 tablespoon (and no more) of a new food on your child’s plate. Think about when you yourself try a new food — you take a small sample first, not a helping, right?
Ideally, try family-style servings, where platters or bowls are already on the table and kids get to help themselves. Remember, kids can always serve themselves more when they are ready.
2. Use two serving spoons.
Every entrée and side dish should get both a large serving spoon and a regular teaspoon, like the kind we use to stir our morning coffee. Ask your child, “Would you like a large helping or a small sample?”
Of course, the hesitant eater will typically help himself to the small sample — but by giving him the choice, you'll alleviate any power struggles.
3. Place food on the molars instead of the tongue.
Encourage kids to start with a pea-size bite and then place the food on their molars, or “side” gums, instead of the very front of their mouth.
Why? The taste of food is much more pronounced when it's placed directly on the tongue. Placing a small piece with a finger or fork directly on the molars gives a child better control, decreases gagging, and gets the food closer to the back of the mouth to be swallowed, rather than immediately spit out.
4. Don’t be rude to food.
If you can’t say something nice about a dish, don’t say anything at all. Dissing a food that another family member enjoys is not allowed. First, it isn’t fair to the others at the table who are trying to have a pleasant dinner. Second, the more we complain about something, the more we all learn to dislike it — including kids.
5. Serve drinks with a straw.
Drinking with a straw hoses down your tongue. Teach kids to take a quick drink if they aren’t happy with a new taste — it propels the food backward to be swallowed and clears the mouth of the taste at the same time.
6. Deconstruct dinner.
It’s a fact that toddlers like foods that can be easily identified. So I recommend breaking down a dish and offering the separate “parts” of, say, the salad: spinach, tomatoes, carrots (or whatever is in there!) to your child. Just be sure to include a very small portion of the “constructed” dish, too.
7. Use hunger as your ally.
It’s not a crime to let a child experience hunger for a few minutes. Learning to tune into our body’s signals and respond appropriately is how kids learn to eat what they need rather than always need to eat.
Keep kids on a meal and snack schedule to allow them to experience the feeling of hunger and become more interested in trying nutritious foods.
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