By Michaela E. Gordon, OTR/L
I am sure that there are many parents out there that have the struggle of getting their children to try new foods and adding those foods consistently to their repertoire. Literature shows that approximately 25-40% of typically developing children and up to 90% of children with disabilities have issues related to feeding and eating (Clawson, et al, 2008, O’Briend et al., 1991). A child’s acceptance of food is influenced by their biological make up, their culture, and their individual experiences they have around food.
There is a developmental, sensory-motor process to introducing different food consistencies to an infant and child. The infant will start with breastfeeding or bottle feeding since they are suckling and sucking with very primitive fine motor abilities. As the baby’s head and trunk stability develops, pureed foods can be introduced. From there, more solid foods can be added as the baby’s ability to manage and chew food becomes more efficient. As the baby ages, they begin to pick up food with the fingers, manage a sippy cup/open cup, and begin to use utensils. Challenges with recognizing or managing food textures, temperature, and tastes as well as oral motor or fine motor challenges, can all influence your child’s ability to try new foods and to continue to expand their food repertoire.
Children also go through developmental phases of rejecting previously accepted foods and they can also become picky with trying new foods. These phases are not long -term and if they continue for a long period of time, these issues could be related to other sensory-motor or social-emotional difficulties.
Interestingly, there is literature indicating that taste buds are influenced by what we eat. For instance, if the child eats processed foods and then you try to introduce a whole food such as a piece of fruit or vegetable, the child may perceive the whole food in a completely different way due to the processed items their taste buds are accustomed to. The child may not accept the food you’d like them to try because of the other foods included in their diet. It’s similar to when you try to eat healthy. At first, it’s so hard to stop eating the processed food. Once you get on a roll, you wonder, “Why was it so hard for me to stop eating that? I love vegetables!” Then after a while, you might start to eat “cheat foods” again. Next thing you know, you feel like you are picking up your baby spinach like a stack of hay and painfully enduring every bite, while you dream of your next favorite splurge. Kids are no different!
Lastly, food and drink consumption is not just a part of our survival mechanism, but it is also a social experience. We commune and celebrate life through food with friends and family. We begin to create associations between our emotions and the foods we eat. Some associations can lead to unhealthy eating habits, taking us away from food for nutrition and positive communing with others. Some of us comfort ourselves and our children with sugary or salty processed foods when we feel sad or lonely. Some of us have intense conversations during mealtimes, leading to negative associations, which affects the food experience. A parent may become upset and get involved in a power struggle over the child eating his/her food, which leads to mealtimes becoming an enduring experience rather than a relaxing, enjoyable experience.
That’s a lot to think about right? Here are some tips to help you to start work on increasing your child’s food repertoire:
- Walk the walk! If you want your children to eat fresh, wholesome food, then you, the parent needs to be an example of that. It’s good for you and it’s good for them. If you don’t eat fresh foods, you will realize that your taste buds aren’t necessarily craving those vegetables, but rather something processed liked a bagged snack or sugary treat. It’s a group effort to train the taste buds in the family so your bodies recognize the food that will keep them vibrant and healthy!
- Shift your mind from the American children’s menu! Yes, children tend to prefer more bland, simple foods as they are developing, but it doesn’t mean we should feed them fried foods, processed foods, and sugar-filled foods. You can make simple foods and keep them healthy. I love Joy Feldman’s cookbook, Joyful Cooking: In The Pursuit of Good Health. It has a wealth of information about preparing fresh foods and she also has a section of fun ideas for kids.
- Some children like the spicy, salty, sour and more flavorful foods! It’s also important to know that some children need the extra taste in order to recognize the food they are eating. There are many spices and herbs to enhance the taste of food.
- Children are smaller than parents so you want the meal to be appropriate to their size. Some kids will feel overwhelmed by the expectation of eating a lot of food and just won’t eat it all if the plate looks as big as them!
- Your child’s plate should exude compromise! What I mean is that the plate should have 1-2 things they like to eat and 1 thing you’d like them to try. There is no bribing or guilting them if they don’t eat the food. However, there is also no extra food given to them if they are still hungry and they haven’t eaten what was offered. If you have a child that is strong-willed and refuses to eat the offered food or you have a child that is not ready to accept that food for other reasons , you will want to plan for healthy, smaller meals or snacks in between so they have more intervals of eating.
- Don’t give up! It can take up to 25+ times of food exposure before a child might eat a food. That’s a lot of times. So just be patient as you expose them to the foods.
- Eat at the good ‘ol kitchen table! Some parents don’t realize how much their kids are snacking and drinking because they don’t sit for a proper meal. Parents are usually busy and on-the go, so I realize this is hard, but it’s a good habit to teach children to stop and eat. It is also a good habit for you too!
- Move those bodies! Mealtime can feel long to a child and you may find that your child doesn’t want to sit to eat. You may even find yourself chasing your child around the house trying to get them to eat their food. Instead of that, have your child jump on a trampoline, rock back and forth on a therapy ball, get some bike riding or swinging in, or wheelbarrow walk them to the table so they get out all their wiggles out before they eat.
- If you feel you are having a really hard time getting your child to eat, you may need a referral to an occupational therapist or other specialists to rule out other aspects that may be impeding their eating development. You can contact your local occupational therapist and inquire about feeding supports.
In today’s world, we have many food options (or at least we are led to believe we have “food options”) and it’s no wonder that parents are up against so many food struggles. Be patient and kind with yourself and your children. Your job is to present them with opportunities to eat fresh foods and their job is to eat it. May you and your children be vibrant and healthy!
For more information about the author, please go to http://www.michaelagordon.com/
Clawson, B., Selden, M., Lacks, M., Deaton, A. V., Hall, B.,& Bach, R. (2008). Complex pediatric feeding disorders: using teleconfereing technology to improve access to a treatment program. Pediatric Nursing, 34(3), 213-d216.
Feldman, J. (2012). Joyful Cooking: In The Pursuit Of Good Health.
O’Brien, S., Repp, A. C., Williams, G. E., & Christophersen, E. R. (1991). Pediatric feeding disorders. Behavior Modification, 15, 394-418.