As a pediatric feeding therapist, many kids are on my caseload because they are stuck in the chicken nugget and french fry rut…or will only eat one brand of mac-n-cheese…or appear addicted to the not-so-happy hamburger meal at a popular fast food chain. While this may often include kids with special needs such as autism, more than half my caseload consists of the traditional “picky-eaters” who spiraled down to only eating a few types of foods and now have a feeding disorder. I even had one child who only ate eight different crunchy vegetables, like broccoli and carrots. Given his love for vegetables, it took his parents a long time to decide this might be a problem. The point is: These kids are stuck in food jag, eating a very limited number of foods and strongly refusing all others. It creates havoc not only from a nutritional standpoint, but from a social aspect too. Once their parents realize the kids are stuck, the parents feel trapped as well. It’s incredibly stressful for the entire family, especially when mealtimes occur three times per day and there are only a few options on what their child will eat.
It’s impossible in a short blog post to describe how to proceed in feeding therapy once a child is deep in a food jag. Each child is unique, as is each family. But, in general, I can offer some tips on how to prevent this from happening in many families, again, keeping in mind that each child and each family is truly unique.
Here are my Top Ten suggestions for preventing food jags:
#10: Start Early. Expose baby to as many flavors and safe foods as possible. The recent post for ASHA on Baby Led Weaning: A Developmental Perspective may offer insight into that process.
#9: Rotate, Rotate, Rotate: Foods, that is. Jot down what baby was offered and rotate foods frequently, so that new flavors reappear, regardless if your child liked (or didn’t like) them on the first few encounters. This is true for kids of all ages. It’s about building familiarity. Think about the infamous green bean casserole at Thanksgiving. It’s rare that hesitant eaters will try it, because they often see it only once or twice per year.
#8: Food Left on the Plate is NOT Wasted: Even if it ends up in the compost, the purpose of the food’s presence on a child’s plate is for him to see it, smell it, touch it, hear it crunch under his fork and perhaps, taste it. So if the best he can do is pick it up and chat with you about the properties of green beans, then hurray! That’s never a waste, because he’s learning about a new food.
#7: Offer Small Portions: Present small samples. Underwhelming – that’s exactly the feeling we hope to invoke. Besides, if a tiny sample sparks some interest and your child asks for more peas, well, that’s just music to your ears, right? Present the foods in little ramekins, small ice cube trays or even on tiny tasting spoons used for samples at the ice cream shop.
#6: Highlight Three or Four Ingredients Over Two Weeks: You can expose kids to the same three or four ingredients over the course of two weeks, while making many different recipes. For example, here are nine different ways to use basil, tomatoes and garlic. Remember get the kids involved in the recipe, so they experience the food with all of their senses. Even toddlers can tear basil and release the fragrance, sprinkling it on cheese pizza to add a little green. If they just want to include it as a garnish on the plate beside the pizza, that’s a good start, too!
#5 Focus on Building Relationships with Food. That often doesn’t begin with chewing and swallowing. Garden, grocery stop, visit the farmer’s market, create food science experiments like this fancy way of separating egg whites from the yoke. Sounds corny (pardon the pun!), but making friends with food means getting to know food. I often tell the kids I work with “We are introducing your brain to broccoli. Brain, say hello to broccoli!”
#4 Don’t Wait for a Picky Eating Phase to Pass: Use these strategies now. Keep them up, even through a phase of resistant eating. Learning to be an adventurous eater takes time.
#3 Don’t Food Jag on FAMILY favorites. In our fast paced life, it’s easy to grab the same thing for dinner most evenings. Because of certain preferences, are the same few foods served too often? Ask yourself, are you funneling down to your list of “sure things?” It’s easy to fall into the trap: “Let’s just have pizza again – at least I know everyone will eat that.”
#2 Make Family Dinnertime Less about Dinner and More about Family. Why? Because the more a family focuses on the time together, sharing tidbits of their day and enjoying each other’s company, the sweeter the atmosphere at the table. Seems ironic, given this article is focused is on food, but, the strategies noted above all include time together. That’s what family mealtimes are meant to be: a time to share our day. Becoming an adventurous eater is part of that process over time.
And the #1 strategy for preventing food jags? Seek help early. If mealtimes become stressful or the strategies above seem especially challenging, that’s the time to ask a feeding therapist for help. Feeding therapy is more than just the immediate assessment and treatment of feeding disorders – the long term goal is creating joyful mealtimes for the whole family. The sooner you seek advice, the closer you are to that goal. I hope you’ll visit me at My Munch Bug.com for articles and advice on raising adventurous eaters and solving picky eating issues. Plus, here are just a few of my favorite resources:
Websites & Blogs
Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, treats children birth to teens who have difficulty eating. She is the author of Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids and the producer of the award-winning kids’ CD Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food! Melanie’s two-day course on pediatric feeding is offered for ASHA CEUs and includes both her book and CD for each attendee. She can be reached at Melanie@mymunchbug.com.