9 Easy strategies to get your child to eat AND save your sanity
A big thank you to Kim for having me on the blog today!
If we haven’t yet me, I’m Ana, a Baby and Kids Holistic Nutritionist and Picky Eating Coach. There’s nothing I love more than chatting about ways to get our littles to eat.
For those of you that may not know me, I’m a picky eater as well, mainly because I’m a supertaster and that means I taste bitter foods super intensely [read she loves sweets :)] If I had an awesome workout every time I get asked “how do I get my child to eat”, I’d have a 6 pack by now for sure.
The truth is that each child is unique. You’ll first need to play detective and find out what’s causing your little one to refuse foods. ONly then you’ll know the best strategies you can use for your unique child.
As you dive in an explore why your child is selective, I need you to remember two big truth bombs. First, eating is the most difficult sensory task a child can do.
And second, there’s always a reason why they choose not to eat and it’s not because they are just trying to drive you banana’s or because they’re “strong-willed”.
It’s because they are uncomfortable or even sometimes in pain. Even if for some children it’s a learned behavioural issue, they are in need of something from us as parents.
There are three main reasons of why kids won’t eat. Behavioural, medical or lack of skills. Let’s dive in.
Is it Behavioural?
Kids are always looking for control and our attention in their day. They have two cups that need to be filled, all the time. From their point of view, they really don't get to make many decisions in their lives.
And one thing they figure out pretty quickly is that they will always win when decisions are to be made about their bodies. Getting dressed, brushing teeth, bathing, going potty, and you guess it, eating! Those are all areas where they seem to put up the most fights!
Here are my tell-tell signs that your little one is picky because they are seeking attention or control.
Asks you to go back and make them something else (and of course, doesn’t want it anymore when you give it to them).
Argue over the type of cup, colour of plate, or utensil they want to use.
Get upset when you plate their food and say “But I wanted to do it”
The best strategy? There will be a time in your life regardless if your child is “picky” or not, they will go through these phases. Sometimes daily ; ). It’s super important to have strategies in your back pocket to counteract these behaviours without harming your child’s relationship with food and having daily mealtime drama.
That’s why the first things I do when working with parents, is have them create a mealtime structure and routine that works for them and their little munchkins.
Your strategy is twofold. First aim to create a world big enough where they can make decisions to feel they have a say in their lives, yet small enough where there are clear boundaries.
And second, you’re going to work at taking away any reasons that they can argue with you over food
Follow Elyn’s Satter’s division of responsibility.
Parents are responsible for what to make, when to serve foods, where and with who the child will eat.
And the little kiddos are responsible for how much they will eat and if they will eat at all.
Take 5-10 minutes as dinner is being made to spend with them and give them your undivided attention.
Teach them to serve their own food on their own plate (you might have to help your younger munchkin)
The most powerful phrase you can tell your child at meal time is “You don’t have to eat it”. This automatically gives them nothing to argue with you about, nipping in the butt the battle before it starts. [Tip: Before you feel comfortable implementing this strategy, make sure you have already implement the Division of responsibility.]
Is it medical?
Did you know eating is not the body's first priority? It's actually the third!
The body will always be concerned that it’s physiological needs are met. Kids who have asthma, a cold, are teething, or are dealing with a medical issue like tongue tie, food allergies, and constipation to name a few, will have a harder time eating.
The body’s second priority is to protect the brain. That gets taken care of by having your child sit comfortably at the table. It may sound silly at first, but too many times our toddlers want to be like us and sit the “adult” chairs. That leaves them with the table reaching their necks, their feet dangling in the air, and overall super uncomfortable.
These are the kids who end up sitting on their knees, can’t stay still at the table, they get up and down all the time, and seem to have “ants in their pants”.
How to tell your little one is picky because they are not comfortable in their skin?
Do they have a cold/flu?
Are they teething
Do they have an existing medical condition (tongue tied, food allergies, asthma, rashes, diabetes, celiac, etc)
Did they have a stressful event (back to school, fight with friends, moving, a parent went on a business trip, too busy schedules, etc)
Are they always moving around or getting up and down their seat at the table or asking for the same food over and over again.
The strategy here is that you will have to take into consideration what their body is going through and make modifications accordingly.
What can you do?
Always start by making sure your child is fully supported when seated. Their chair has a back support, they are seated at 90 degrees, they have a foot stool and they reach the table near their diaphragm.
Have a conversation with your health care team about what foods are appropriate for their conditions. If you’re not sure where to start hop on a Child Feeding Assessment with me and I’d be happy to point you in the right direction.
As your child goes through their cognitive leaps, it’s important not to let them food jag. That’s when they drop foods from their and want to have the same things over and over again.
Is it lack of oral motor skill?
Most advice we hear online are geared towards trying to curb the behaviour of our child or “change them” in some way. But we forget that eating does involve a lot of coordination.
It takes a child until about 2 years old to learn the oral motor skills to eat and most recently, studies suggest it takes them until 4-5 years old to perfect it.
The moral of the story is to make sure that our kiddos are able to perform the task of eating a certain food before we jump to conclusions that they are being bratty.
I had the pleasure of being a guest expert Inside Kim’s “Fit Mama Club Facebook Group” and we had so much fun going over the steps kids take to learn to eat. Be sure to check it out so that you can see where your kiddo needs to work on next.
How to tell your little one needs to work on oral motor skills
Does not eat meats, vegetables or fruits with peel
They take a few bites of food and say they’re done
Prefers foods that have similar characteristics (smooth, crunchy, soft, etc)
When looking at their tongue, there’s not a “groove” that goes straight down the middle.
When you ask them to open their mouths to have a peek at what’s going on, food is all over the place, not just on the back molars.
What can you do?
In feeding therapy, we create an order in which we offer foods that are challenging so that your little one can practice, followed by foods that are a bit easier to give them a break. It’s a form of food sequencing that works wonders to build those tiny muscles and expand your kid’s safe food list.
Over-exaggerate your chewing movements and show them what’s going on inside your mouth.
Put those challenging foods on toothpicks and instruct your little one to ut it right on the back on their molars to chew.
This is where playing with food is so important. We have to make it fun or we lose their attention.
Hopefully, this helps you narrow down what’s at the root of your little one’s picky eating and will give you some ideas on what you should focus on first.
To happier mealtimes!
Ana-Maria Janes R.H.N is a Baby and Kids Holistic Nutritionist and a Picky Eating Coach. She’s also the Founder of Nourished Little Munchkins and runs where she helps parents of kids with feeding challenges get their munchkins to eat again. To learn more about getting your picky eaters to eat, you can catch her over inside the Baby and Kids Holistic Nutrition Facebook group, or download her guide “Top 10 Crazy Easy Tricks To Help Your Picky Eater...EAT”.