Kids and Food Refusal, Sensory Aversions, and Picky Eaters
Whether you have a baby, a toddler, an older child (or even a cautious husband!), chances are that at some point you have introduced a new food and received a “yuck” face in return. Although frustrating, this is quite normal. Often times before we get into all of the technicalities of food refusal and/or sensory aversions, we need to first start with LOWERING THE EXPECTATIONS! By doing this, we also lower the stress!!
There are so many reasons why a child may be “refusing” certain foods, and parents are normally shocked when they realize all of the tools we can put in our toolboxes for healthy eating. We have to meet our kids where they ARE. We would all love to see our kids diving into a Medical Medium plate of healing foods, but for some kids, that is not reality…YET. Let’s discuss food preferences, refusal, sensory issues, and go over some tips for encouraging your kids to eat new foods.
How to Get Your Children to Try New Foods
First and foremost, when it comes to introducing new foods, KEEP AN OPEN MIND. It may not be the food itself that is being refused! Here are a few tips from the Feeding Specialist inside of me.
1. Build off Textures & Foods Your Child Prefers
Think about the foods that your child eats easily and willingly. Are they pureed/mushy or chunky/solid? Are they wet/dry? Now, think about small changes that can be made to the preferred foods which will bridge the gap to the new food(s) you are trying to introduce.
For example, if your child likes applesauce and pureed foods, try adding chunks of apples to get him/her used to more solid foods. Or, if your child loves spaghetti, try zucchini noodles, spaghetti squash, or add some whole cherry tomatoes to your sauce. You can even change up the pasta itself with black bean, lentil, or chickpea pasta.
Does your child prefer hot or cold foods (or somewhere in the middle?) Keep this in mind as you expand your offerings.
Does your child turn up his nose when the food isn’t “pretty?” Does he/she gravitate toward specific colors or shapes? Appealing to these interests can make a big difference.
It’s our job to make our children feel safe. In general, keep in mind that when children feel safe and comfortable, they are actually more willing to step out of their comfort zone and try something new.
For reference, your child’s head should be positioned so that it is upright or flexed very slightly forward. His/her hips should be in a 75 to 90-degree angle and his/her chin should be tucked downward slightly when eating.
Take note of your child’s preferred eating behavior. Are they more comfortable with finger foods? Or does he/she prefer foods that require the use of a spoon or a fork? Does this vary depending on the level of hunger (finger foods get in the mouth faster)? Does your child have difficulty and/or need practice with utensils?
As far as new drinks go (especially getting kids to drink celery juice), depending on the age of your child, consider experimenting with a straw cup, a syringe, a twisty straw, colored straws, fun cups, tiny cups, or Mama’s cup.
Does your family tend to eat when seated at the dining room/kitchen table or in front of a TV? Is it quiet or loud? Is the atmosphere calming or chaotic? Limiting the craziness and distractions can certainly help!
Sometimes playing music can be effective in improving the sensory experience. Specific types of music can result in increased attention, reduced sensory defensiveness, and greater openness to new experiences.
8. Movement (before eating)
Children may require movement before mealtimes to prevent sensory defensiveness and/or overload. This may look like swinging, jumping, bouncing, or other similar activities. Your child may need slow movements or fast movements.
9. Pair with movement (while eating)
Your child may even need to move DURING the meal. While this can be a safety hazard if you’re not careful, would it work for your child to safely finish a bite and then complete some type of movement before the next bite? Here are some options for bouncy chairs you could try out if you think this method would work for your child: Gaiam Kids Balance Ball Chair and Gymnic Movin’ Sit Jr. Inflatable Seat Cushion.
10. Explore the Senses
Start with baby steps—just encourage interaction. This takes the stress out of trying unfamiliar foods. Encourage your child to touch, smell, lick the new food with NO pressure to consume. Some young children need to spend some tolerating the new food in their hands first, and then maybe just touching it to their lips, then maybe to their tongue—before actually tasting new foods.
Kids with true sensory aversions will need time here, so be patient. The average “picky eater” or “sensory” child needs to see a new food 15 times before attempting to try it. Any kind of interaction is progress, so don’t get discouraged.
11. Pair a New Food with a Preferred Food
Always offer a favorite food + 1-2 new foods at a time. Just seeing a food that is preferred and comfortable can bring down the child’s anxiety and stress level during meal or snack time, and even if they are not ready to try the new options, they’ll still have something they love to eat at mealtimes.
12. Prep & Cook Together
We all know the power of engagement. This might including selecting the recipes, meal planning, making the shopping list, picking out the food at grocery store, washing, cutting, and/or mixing the food, setting the dinner table, and more!
Prepping and cooking together provides an exciting and low-pressure activity where you can introduce new foods. Kids are typically curious enough to try new things without any prompting when they are invested in the pride of putting a meal together with Mom, Dad, or the whole family.
Be a good role model in your own eating habits! Those little eyes are ALWAYS on you, Mama! Keep in mind that if you consistently turn your nose up at foods, your child will also see that!
14. Encourage Healthy Snacking
If you have young kids, then you know their eating habits seem to revolve around MORE, MORE, MORE and every 5 minutes. Even with older children, this can be true. You can use this constant snacking as an opportunity to offer healthy foods like apples with almond or cashew butter, raw vegetables (carrots and red peppers are good choices because of their natural sweetness that kids love). Snacking often (or adrenal snacking) is also a great way to keep the blood sugar stable and keep the adrenals at rest (meaning they can devote more time to healing).
Little ones tend to love the fun of dipping. Can you make a clean and healthy dip for fruits and/or veggies? There are tons of recipes, but quick dips like guacamole and hummus can be bought already prepared. French fries or sweet potato fries (or any color potatoes – they’re all good!) with homemade guacamole or veggie dip are likely to be a big hit. Having hor ‘d oeuvres and dipping casually can take some pressure off too!
16. When in Doubt, Go Sweet
You heard me right. No that doesn’t mean ice cream every night. More like lots and lots of fruit! You can also think about how to take their favorite dessert and make it healthier. Can you tweak the ingredients a little (raw honey instead of white sugar)? Or add fruit to the top of that MM approved cake instead of frosting? Maybe get rid of the cake altogether and plate up a wide variety of colorful fruits bursting with sweet new flavors. Odds are if there is a sweet element, they’ll be more likely to try and love it.
17. Always Be Gentle & Kind
Try your best to be encouraging, and also never be disappointed when the outcome isn’t exactly as you wished it would be.
18. If at First You Don’t Succeed – TRY, TRY AGAIN
Seriously, it often takes children an average of 10-15 tries before accepting a new food. Do your best to keep these eating habits up every day, and before you know it they (and hopefully the new foods) will become second nature before you know it.
Food & Healing
As you can see, food refusal is not simple, nor black and white. If you find yourself frustrated with your child’s lack of eagerness to expand on his/her diet, try running through the list above. Eating is obviously a huge part of life, and it truly can be ENJOYABLE and REWARDING (and of course HEALING). Also, know that the possibility of sensory issues decreasing as healing is happening, and picky eating becoming a thing of the past with a path of patience and consistency is very real. Keep trying, keep the faith, and bon appetit!
If you’re seeking a more individualized approach to food refusal or related issues, please seek a consultation with RoH.