Feeding your child does it involve adorably themed snacks in little compartmentalized containers boasting Instagram-worthy status or perfectly balanced combinations from all the food groups creating a colorful display? Oh it doesn’t?! Well you’re not alone! I am an occupational therapist specializing in feeding therapy with two young children of my own to feed, and I can tell you that even I have been known to let out an audible groan and a far from subtle eye-roll when I see these kinds of ideas in my Pinterest feed. So what can you do to encourage your child to expand their horizons when it comes to trying new foods? I’m here to share a few basic strategies that you can infuse into meals and snacks that won’t take any extra time and only minimal effort.
your best bet is to aim to have your child in a well-supported seating arrangement. Kids often jump right from their highchair to a full-sized kitchen chair, but their bodies may still be in need of some extra support. The goal is to have their feet resting flat on a support surface and their hips in contact with the back of the chair. Imagine how much work it is to sit at a bar stool with no footrest. That’s what it is like for a child to sit on a chair that is too large. I often say to families, if your child already doesn’t love trying new foods, you definitely don’t want them having to work extra hard to stay at the table for it. Some easy ways to achieve this positioning in a chair that is otherwise too big is to use a stool or a box for under the feet and rolled up towels or a cushion behind the back.
Be a “food adventurer”
This concept acknowledges that unfamiliar foods can be a bit daunting but as a food adventurer, your child is being brave and exploring uncharted territory! And then you can praise them for it too – “Ah! I’m so proud of what a food adventurer you’re being!”
Along the same lines, talk in terms of learning about foods. Don’t make taking a bite of every food the expectation if your child isn’t there yet. Meaning if they run crying from the room as soon as you bring in the broccoli, they are not ready to put it in their mouth. Learning keeps the door open when your child shuts down your offer of, “Can you take a bite of carrot?” Instead, reassure them confidently, “Don’t worry! We’re learning about this food!” From there you can ask them to describe it to you – what color is it? Is it hard or soft? Does it have a small, medium, or big smell? All these are opportunities for a child to acclimate to the food and get a sense of what it might be like to actually have it in their mouth when they get to that point. There’s so so much to figure out about a new food before it ever goes into your mouth! Would you put a totally foreign food you’d never seen and couldn’t quite identify into your mouth before doing some serious investigating?! I wouldn’t!
Which leads me to the next VERY important but VERY attainable strategy…offer foods! Don’t hold back offering your young child certain foods just because they aren’t “kid foods.” As long as your child can safely manage a food, offer it on their plate or high chair tray. If you don’t offer a food, your child won’t all of a sudden magically like it because they turn a certain age. Kids need the opportunity to be exposed to a food by seeing it (and seeing it and seeing it and seeing it again) to make it feel more familiar, which increases the likelihood they will be ready to try it.
On the flipside, less may be more. When you’re offering foods for exposure, don’t go overboard. Keep it simple. Offering 3-4 foods at a time is plenty, and it’s OK to offer a single red pepper strip, for example, if it’s a new food for your child. In doing so, your child is less likely to get overwhelmed and you are less likely to get upset when it doesn’t get eaten.
These are just a few very basic strategies to steer you in the right direction as you navigate the choppy waters of trying to feed a child! If you find that you and/or your child are experiencing significant distress and regularly battling over eating or that your child is not eating any foods from an entire food group(s) or is consistently dropping foods they previously ate and not resuming eating them again, talk to your child’s primary care provider and ask about seeking a feeding evaluation from a trained occupational therapist or speech-language pathologist as
those are signs of more significant feeding concerns. If that is the case, fear not!! There are many, many more very successful ways we can support you and your child as they work to improve their comfort and confidence as a food adventurer!
By: Abby Engel, MS, OTR/L