Food Wars Revisited: Picky Eating Strategies

We all seek autonomy, including toddlers.

Around 10 months of age, infants begin to realize that they have free will and can refuse parental requests and demands, and that includes food. Thus, we give you the rise of the picky eater.

Pick Your Eater

It’s worth noting that picky eating behavior is normal for toddlers since they are beginning to learn their likes/dislikes and how to advocate for themselves. These new eating habits can be stressful, especially if you’re worried that your child isn’t eating enough as they grow. Typically, a toddler can tolerate at least 20 different food items across the different food groups.

In general, picky eaters:

  • Are selective about what they eat, preferring their “go-to” foods as they are predictable to them
  • Can eat 10-20 different foods
  • Will not starve

Even further, problem feeders:

  • Eat less than 10 foods
  • May go into food debt (getting tired of one desired food item and will not add new foods to their diet because they can’t tolerate it)
  • Will starve before consuming unwanted foods and will require medical/therapeutic intervention

From our previous Food Wars post, we know that past experiences influence food habits and eating behavior. If something tastes good or positive memories are built around it (like eating an ice cream cone with mom and dad on the boardwalk), then we’re more likely to try it again. However, if a child has a bad experience associated with a certain food either due to taste, an adverse aroma, texture, or a past scolding for not finishing their food, they could get triggered and will refuse to eat it.

For this post update, we’re going to talk about other picky eating considerations and ways to help your child expand their food palette.

A Matter of Preference

Not all foods are equal, at least from the perspective of your kiddo. For example, McDonald’s chicken nuggets and fries have a consistent flavor and softer texture and are heavy toddler favorites across the board. On the other hand, blueberries can vary in many sensory ways depending on the batch (juicy, squishy, sweet, sour) and some kids don’t want to deal with it. With that said, here’s a quick guide in understanding certain food groups:

  • Breads/starches (fries, pasta, chips) – Easiest to eat because they are predictable in flavor and texture.
  • Proteins (meat, cheese) – Tougher to tolerate, requires more chewing and stays in the mouth longer.
  • Vegetables (sweet potato, broccoli, cooked greens) – Can be a hit-or-miss. Children have more taste buds than adults and may find the flavor overwhelming/unpleasant to handle depending on preparation.
  • Fruits (strawberries, applesauce, raisins) – Although it may seem easier for your child to eat because they’re sweeter, some fruits may be too unpredictable when it comes to taste and texture. Some kids also are afraid of swallowing seeds.
  • Beverages (milk, juice, water) – While helpful in adding calories, it can fill up your kid’s stomach during mealtimes.
  • Candy – Adds no nutritional value but does add calories.

You may have noticed that your child gravitates to a certain flavor, texture, or food group. To add more variety, here are some suggestions that may help.

All About Presentation. Consider how new foods can look on a plate. A heaping pile of steamed broccoli can pose as an overwhelming task to eat for a picky eater. Try:

  • Giving only small portions of the new or undesired food (cut the broccoli up in bite-size portions or don’t put as much on the plate)
  • Plates with dividers so the unfavored food doesn’t touch their familiar ones
  • Making it fun with playful food trays (like mazes, spinners, and games)

Teaching Tolerance. Your kiddo may not immediately take to novel food items, but that doesn’t mean you don’t serve it to them. Start by putting one or two unfavored items on their plate. Tell them they are not obligated to eat it, but it stays on their plate. When mealtime is complete, get them to interact with it by tossing it in the trash or moving it into a “no thank you” bowl. By doing so, you put the child in control, getting them to tolerate the undesired food in their presence for a dedicated amount of time, and indirectly have them engage with it (even if they don’t eat it). The goal is desensitization of unfamiliar foods with the hope they will eventually try and eat it.

Food Chaining. This is a technique where the child is introduced to new foods based on past positive eating experiences. The unfamiliar food items must be similar to a favored food by way of texture, appearance, taste, or temperature, essentially “chaining” these items and experiences together. For example, to get from McDonald’s chicken nuggets to fish, you may try:

  • McDonald’s chicken nuggets > frozen chicken nuggets > homemade chicken tenders > grilled chicken strips > frozen fish sticks > baked fish

Remember that food chaining takes time as you’re getting your little one to be successful with one different element before shifting to the next associated food item.

Sensory Situations. If your child has sensory sensitivities, like touch or smell, more than likely their eating habits will reflect that. If that’s the case, tackling those issues will not only help with meals, but with their daily activities as well. Pediatric OTs are a wonderful resource in addressing sensory issues that may be affecting your kid, btw. *wink*

Sweeten the Deal. If your kiddo just needs a bit of motivation, using dessert during meals may help. Let’s say you want them to try an unwanted food (like green beans), for every bite of the undesired item, they may have a small incentive (like an M&M). Also try adding cheese or a condiment to the new food to help make it more appetizing.

Reports also say that adding dessert to the plate from the beginning helps kids pace themselves throughout the meal, creating a healthier relationship with food.

Gather Round the Table

Picky eating isn’t only influenced by a child’s food preference. In fact, what may look like picky eating may be a result due to their dining environment. For example, your kid may be fixated on the busy sights and sounds of a restaurant rather than the food that’s in front of them. Or, they may be popping out of their seat every few bites because they don’t feel secure in their chair.  

Ideally, mealtimes take about 20 minutes with family members present at the table sitting appropriately.  Here’s some tips to help achieve it:

Build that Stamina. Twenty minutes can seem like a long time for your kid to sit at the table for a meal. If they can only tolerate 5-minute increments, help build it up to 20 minutes using a timer or other reinforcement methods. Also avoid tablets or smartphones while they wait for the time to pass by.

A Bit More Support. An appropriately sized chair, booster seat, or highchair can go a long way for your kid. Appropriate posture and stability at the hips can help kids chew and swallow foods easier. Elbows should be at table height with feet supported. Patti switched from a booster chair to a kid counter stool too soon, and her girls were getting in and out of their seats all throughout dinner. The stools didn’t have waist belts and their feet could not reach the top rung. It took a considerable bit of time for them to build the discipline to stay put.

Make it Basic. If your child gets too distracted by their environment to eat, you may want to consider shifting dinner times at a restaurant as to not catch the rush. At home, turn off the TV or put on calmer music during meals instead of that top 40 playlist you jam out to while running errands. You can also use the opportunity to eat in the dining room that you rarely use. Chances are it’s separate from all of the distraction.

Keep it Positive. Yeah, I know. That’s not easy, especially when you worked hard on a dish or spent money at dinner, and they don’t even touch it. But, creating a negative experience with scolding and reprimands can actually shut off the hunger sensors in the brain, making it more difficult on the next go around at the dinner table.

Good, structured mealtimes are important for developing successful eating habits. Remember that picky eating is like a rite of passage for your little one as they learn their independence. It is not a reflection of who you are as a parent or how good of a cook you are. Also, most toddlers do have enough self-awareness that they aren’t going to starve.

With patience, time, and consistent (and positive) feeding foundations, your once-picky eater may one day be the one coaxing you to try new foods and experiences.

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Wood, V. (2021, November 5). Sensory-Based Feeding Strategies: Interventions for the Picky Eater and Problem Feeders. Retrieved from Seminar.

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