Whether a child participates in feeding treatment or parents simply ask advice on how to encourage their kids to try new foods, offering manageable tips is where I like to start. For every child, I ask parents to follow my three Es: Expose, Explore, Expand.
Parents often report that they no longer put new foods on a child’s plate because: “What’s the point? He won’t eat it anyway.” The point is exposing kids to a variety of foods, especially those enjoyed at the family table. Some children may require a preferred food as their main course, but including a small portion—1 tablespoon—of at least one other food on a kiddo’s plate makes a huge difference. When kids only see familiar and preferred foods on their plates, they begin to resist anything unfamiliar showing up. Exposing kids to foods on their plates builds familiarity. Present a few different foods on a regular basis until they get comfortable with small samplings of anything the family eats – even if they need more time to taste it.
From birth, children explore new sensations with their hands, fingers and mouths. If they don’t feel safe putting a new food in their mouth, you can help their brain get used to a new food via the nerve endings in the fingers and the palms of their hands. These three tips help kids see themselves as “food explorers” until they feel comfortable with a new taste, texture and temperature in the mouth:
- Encourage parents to get kids in the kitchen, especially if the family says, “we don’t cook much.” Even 2-year-olds can chop fruits, cheese or other basic foods with kid-safe knives for a quick snack.
- Explain how spending time in the kitchen together offers added benefits to the entire family, including better overall health, improved communication and even saving money.
- SLPs know the importance of playing in food, but many parents don’t grasp what a difference it can make. Encourage them to get messy!
Once kids begin to explore new foods, because their parents are exposing them to a wider variety, broaden those opportunities by expanding beyond typical family meals. These suggestions show parents how to model encountering even less familiar foods with a sense of adventure:
- Encourage parents to visit fish markets and other unique food environments. How about Chinatown with its vast array of unusual aromas or perhaps a local food fair with plentiful samples? Speaking of samples, Costco provides free samples of a wide assortment of unusual foods. Suggest to families that they stop for a sample of something not typically purchased to model adventurous eating for their hesitant eater. When trying a new food, parents can say, “Oooh, spicy,” but suggest they follow it up with, “I’m going to try tasting it again,” and taking another bite. Remember, it’s fine not to like a food. Even parents need to practice new taste sensations. Suggest this phrase: “I don’t care for it yet. I need to keep practicing.”
- For families who visit food banks to supplement meals, encourage them to choose one new atypical food to take home. Most families tend to choose familiar food staples, but food banks offer an excellent source of nutritious foods sometimes too expensive to purchase in a grocery store. A recent trip to our local food pantry in Colorado resulted in one of my feeding clients bringing home chia seeds, gluten-free granola and dried apricots. All of these foods stay fresh for weeks and allow for frequent exposure, the opportunity to explore on a daily basis and practice in expanding variety in the home.
Whether working with a child in feeding treatment on oral skills like chewing, addressing special needs such as autism, or supporting a family trying to avoid the chicken-nugget rut, manageable tips to start incorporating at home will help families experience success. Even if the child isn’t yet ready to bite, chew and swallow certain foods, the three Es will support long-term goals that SLPs address in sessions. They also help create terrific habits for any child. For some kids, the three Es lead to eating a variety of healthy foods. For others, it sets the foundation for generalization of those skills they learn in treatment. Share this video with parents for more tips on the three Es.
Remember: Expose, Explore, Expand!
Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, treats children, birth to teens, who have difficulty eating. She is the co-author of “Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater: A Parent’s Handbook—A Stage by Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating,” 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@mymunchbug.com