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Ahh picky eaters. At my private practice, I get a lot of questions about food choices and how to get kids to eat more options. No matter what type of foods the child won’t eat, I always recommend the same steps for parents.

It is important to note that this is a basic overview in how to deal with food aversion and picky eaters. If your child is exhibiting issues with eating, I highly suggest you seek therapy from a speech language pathologist. Also, not all speech pathologists deal with food therapy, so you’ll need to do some research and ask anyone you contact!

What Are the Symptoms of Picky Eaters and Food Aversions

Between 20% to 50% of kids are described by their parents as picky eaters. One day your child may love eating bananas and the next day they are gagging and spitting them out of their mouth. You are not alone. The key item is to understand when these behaviors are just your child showing food likes/dislikes and heading towards a food aversion.

So what are the key signs of a food aversion? These signs might range in severity and may not appear in every child.

  1. Gagging on food as soon as it’s placed in his/her mouth
  2. Clasping mouth closed not allowing for a fork or spoon to enter their mouth
  3. Spitting out food without chewing or gumming it around 
  4. Throwing a “temper tantrum” at meal time
  5. Taking a long time to eat their meal or refusing to eat at all
Picky Eaters

Some of you might be reading this and thinking, “yeah my kids do that every night so now what?” The first thing I’d suggest is to approach foods the same way a therapist would in therapy. There are certain steps that must be followed in order to decrease food sensitivities.  When attempting to incorporate a new food into your child’s diet, complete the following steps IN ORDER. 

  1. Let them touch the food. There is no need to have your child put the food in their mouths or anything at this point in time. They have to be willing to touch the object before they will even allow it near their oral cavity. 
  2. Once they are ok with touching the food, you let them smell it. Have them hold it and describe what they smell. You can make a list of what they are describing to you, as well as what they THINK it will taste like. 
  3. After smelling the food, you will have the child lick it. They do not need to put it in their mouths or chew anything at this point in therapy. It is usually, at this stage, that we see kids have issues and that’s ok. It’s important to go back to the previous step for a few more days and then try again.
  4. Once they are ok with licking the food, it’s time for them to put it in their mouths. Again, there is no need to chew or swallow whatever you are giving them. If they want to, go for it! If not, they can just spit it out with the goal of chewing being the next time they try it. 
  5. The last step is chewing and swallowing. Don’t be surprised if you get some gagging at first. This is totally normal, as well. Back off and try it again at another time. 

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What if My Child Won’t Eat at All?

Listen, kids will eat when they are hungry. There’s no point in stressing you or your kids out by trying to force food down their throats. As long as they are gaining weight and growing, they are getting enough nutrition. You may need to give different vitamins, but that’s a question for your pediatrician.

1. Share Responsibility

As a parent, you have responsibilities for feeding your child. Your child also has responsibilities.

  • You control what, where and when food is provided.
  • Your child decides whether or not to eat the food, and how much to eat.

2. Offer a Variety of Age-Appropriate Foods

Your child should select from a variety of foods at mealtime like a vegetable, fruit, protein and starch. The family menu should not be limited to the child’s favorite foods. Children may have to be offered food up to 15 times before they will try it.

3. Limit High Calorie Drinks

Your child may not eat the foods you provide if he or she is drinking too many calories from juice, soda or milk. If your child drinks too much, he or she can become full and eat poorly at mealtimes. Limit your child to 4 ounces of juice and 24 ounces of milk a day. Soda is not recommended for children because it has no nutritional benefit. For more information regarding this topic, check with your child’s pediatrician. 

4. Set a Meal Schedule

Both snacks and meals are important for growing children to meet their nutrition needs. Having a set schedule of breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner and bedtime snack helps children know that there is a meal coming every two to three hours and that they will not go hungry. Avoid giving your child food between the scheduled times.

Schedule Activities

If your child chooses to skip a meal or a snack, he or she can wait until the next scheduled time in a couple of hours. If your child refuses to eat, have him or her sit at the table until the majority of the family is finished eating, within reason. We do this with our daughter, who is three! 

5. Make Meals Pleasant

The mealtime environment should always be considered when feeding a child. Conversation should be pleasant, the eating space should be clean and bright and distractions should be limited. Mealtime is not a time for watching television or arguing. We don’t allow our kids to watch tv while eating unless it’s a special occasion!

6. Respect Eating Quirks 

Everyone has his or her own quirks about eating. Children may eat a sandwich cut into triangles without crusts, but would not eat the same sandwich cut into squares with the crusts. A child may eat small pieces of broccoli, but avoid the stems. Foods that your child eats today may not be eaten tomorrow. It is important to realize that your child may react differently to the same foods on different days. It is not necessary to offer a substitute food.

7. Avoid Being a Short Order Cook

As a mom, I get this one can be hard. BUT, If your child doesn’t like or doesn’t seem to be eating the foods that you have prepared for a meal or snack, it’s okay. Avoid the temptation to return to the stove and cook foods that you know your child will eat. If your child refuses a meal or snack, there will be another one in a few hours and he or she should be able to wait until then. When children are hungry because they chose not to eat, they’ll be more likely to eat what is offered next time.

8. Don’t Always Offer Dessert

Dessert does not need to be offered with every meal or even every day. When dessert is available, consider the following ideas:

  • If a child is forced to eat an entire meal before dessert, he or she may be full, but will likely eat the dessert anyway.
  • If your child refuses to eat, withholding dessert is not the answer. The child will learn to value dessert above more nutritious foods, which can alter eating patterns for life.
  • If your child rushes through the meal to get to dessert, try offering dessert with the meal.
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