We can’t talk about picky eating solutions without addressing mealtimes. When providing the right structure, support, and opportunities, mealtimes can be the springboard that allows your picky eater to begin eating new foods.
Think of these five principles as your new mealtime rules. They won’t resolve picky eating struggles instantaneously (let’s face it, nothing actually does!), but these mealtime foundations will set you up for the success you want and make sure that all of your other efforts will be as successful as possible.
5 Mealtime Tips to Improve Picky Eating
Most extreme picky eaters dine alone. Often, they’re more comfortable eating without others and it makes sense because they usually don’t share the same foods that their family is eating. Yet, when a child eats alone, they are missing out on important opportunities that can reverse their eating habits.
A child gets two primary benefits when eating with you and other family members. First, they get to watch. Kids pick up on and learn from what they see around them and research shows that kids model their family’s eating behaviors. By eating together, you are demonstrating to your child how to eat.
Second, when children eat alone they are less likely to encounter new foods. Sharing meals with others means that a picky eater will automatically be exposed to new foods. We know that picky eaters require multiple exposures to new foods, and this certainly counts.
I know a lot of extreme picky eaters and especially children with autism struggle to eat with others. If your child isn’t there yet, I recommend working up to it incrementally. For example, they can start sitting at the kitchen counter while the family is at the kitchen table and each night they can move their chair closer and closer to the table.
Bring in any support they might need to better tolerate eating around others and being in the presence of unfamiliar foods. (I have a bunch of suggestions in my ebook for specific sensory challenges)
Serve One New & One Preferred Food
So now that you’ll be eating together, I’m sure you’re wondering what you’ll be eating. Does that change at all? Yes and no. The way I see it, there are two mealtime priorities: 1) make sure your child eats and 2) encourage them to get comfortable with and eventually eat new foods. In order to meet the first, meals always need to include at least one of your child’s preferred foods. If your child’s preferred foods are not foods that you or the rest of the family eats, it’s okay. Still always serve a preferred food. Of course, it’s okay to have more than one preferred at each meal.
To help with the second priority – helping your child learn to like new foods – I recommend also serving one new food as often as possible. If they’re eating alone (or if you’re packing lunch, for example) you can pick this new food specifically for them. At a shared meal, the family’s food can count as the new food if it’s something your child does not prefer.
Serve Family Style
At shared meals, rather than pre-plating each eater’s plate, try bringing the serving dishes to the table so everyone can serve themselves. This technique, called family-style serving, accomplishes two things. First, it allows each eater to determine how much and what they want to eat. This control might help your picky eater feel more comfortable having new foods on their plate. Second, when a child is serving their own food – even if they’re just passing a dish – they are forced to have an interaction with that food. Maybe they’ll smell it or touch it or maybe just look at it. Regardless of what the interaction is, this engagement will help your child feel more comfortable with new foods.
Don’t Pressure or Force Eating
Pressuring doesn’t usually work with picky eaters, but that’s not why I want you to avoid it. Extreme picky eaters usually don’t have many positive associations with food. Forcing a child to eat something they don’t want to backfires and reinforces their negative relationship with food. It can prolong eating resistance. Plus, it’s a quick way to make dinner time a lot less enjoyable for you and your child.
Take the Focus Away from What or How Your Child Is Eating
I know you’re constantly worried about what and how much your child is eating. It can be hard to think about anything else during mealtimes. Again, it’s a quick way to make mealtimes less enjoyable. Instead of focusing on food, try to focus on enjoying the time you’re spending together. If you do talk about the food, talk about it objectively, discussing only its sensory qualities (for example, the pasta is soft and warm).
The mealtime environment forms the foundation of a healthy relationship with food. Following these five mealtime rules will ensure that your child has the support they need to eat well and learn to try new foods.
If these are changes for you, don’t try to work on them all at once. Instead, pick only one to focus on weekly. What is one thing you can do today to make your first change easier?