How to help your child love food

  • Written by Dara Schmeck, MS, CCC-SLP, Bothell Pediatric and Hand Therapy
The USDA has established guidelines for healthful eating patterns, with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.  However, many picky eaters tend to refuse these foods, leading to mealtime battles.  Here are some things you can do to help your child learn how to enjoy a broad variety of foods:

Offer a variety of foods at each meal and snack.  Be sure a starch, protein, and fruit or vegetable is present at every meal.  Teach your children about those foods, talking about taste, texture, and smell.  Keep your language positive or neutral, and avoid any negative words (e.g., slimy, stinky).  Model how to eat those foods, and what happens to them as you chew.  Encourage any interaction with new foods; sometimes poking a new food can be a victory.

Establish a mealtime routine.  Include a verbal warning prior to the meal, set-up (e.g., washing hands), and clean-up (e.g., clearing plates from the table).  When a child knows what to expect at the meal, they are better prepared to handle the challenge of a new food.

Eliminate distractions.  Turn off the TV, remove toys from the table, and focus on the food.  The table is your classroom to teach about food and eating patterns; help your child focus by removing attention-stealers.

Schedule meals and snacks.  Children should eat approximately every 2.5 hours, resulting in 5 meals/snacks each day.  Their stomachs are too small to hold enough calories for the day with only 3 meals.  As well, the body’s natural hunger cycle occurs about every 2.5 hours.  Take advantage of naturally hungry times to offer more healthful foods.

Eliminate snacking or grazing between meals.  When your child is snacking between meals, they will not be hungry at meals or snacks when you are offering healthier food choices.  This makes it easier for them to refuse those foods.  Juice or other flavored drinks can also reduce appetite.  Offer only water between meals and snacks.

Engage your child in mealtime preparation.  Let them come grocery shopping and help you cook.  Empower them by letting them choose and prepare that dinner’s vegetable - they may decide to try it!

Get messy.  Playing with food is a normal part of the developmental process in learning to eat foods.  Use food as your materials for art projects or even as face paint.  The more exposure a child has to a food, the more familiar it becomes, and the more likely they may be to decide to try a new food.

You are the most important factor in your child’s relationship with food.  Model healthful eating patterns yourself; your child will learn by your example.  Be patient - eating habits do not change overnight. If you continue to struggle with your child at mealtimes, our Food Explorers feeding therapy program is designed to promote positive interactions with food and decrease resistance to touching, tasting, and swallowing food.

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