How to Make Mealtime FUN for a Picky Eater
Mealtimes with kids can be stressful, challenging and full of a power-struggle. In all actuality, though, we want to have a mealtime that is fun, engaging, and a positive family experience. There are plenty of ways to shift our focus during meal time away from what our child ‘wont eat’ into a less stressful and positive eating experience.
Our brain is usually most excited about food that LOOKS good. Our toddlers and children are full of play, creativity, and imagination, so why not make food this way too? Below are some strategies to help improve a child’s relationship with food, tolerance of food, and acceptance of a new food.
The first step is to get our children INVOLVED with the food preparation.
This starts at home when meal planning, at the grocery store when picking out foods, and when preparing the food for mealtime. Pull up a chair to a table or counter and have your child help with simple meal preparation tasks such as pouring ingredients into the bowl, mixing the food, and even cutting the food if age appropriate with a child-safe knife.
Next, have your child help with meal planning.
Meal planning is a great way to provide your child with a plan of the meals-to-come during the week. This may help reduce their possible stress and/or nerves about what might be served at a mealtime. Also, let your child pick a day of the week to ‘plan’ a meal. Give them minimal parameters, such as a meat/protein, fruit/vegetable, and ‘your favorite thing ever’! This meal is meant to be special for your child (they may even require you to eat with your hands!) and give them more autonomy in mealtime, which will also reduce stress for that meal!
Now, onto getting your child to try new foods.
Partner WITH your child, not against them.
Allow your child to pick out the food given a few choices and try to give them fun names. “Are we having dinosaur trees (broccoli) or frog logs (zucchini boats) with our dinner tonight?” Don’t forget to INCLUDE your child in the preparation of this food. It may help to play some fun music during meal prep with a non-preferred food, even bring in a toy to help and create a diversion from the child doing the work! Next, create a fun way to introduce this food. For example, set it on a big platter in the middle of the table instead of on their own plate and encourage touching, smelling, picking up with a utensil instead of fingers, and even feeding it to another person before feeding it to themselves. Remember, we want to make this process as FUN as possible!
Helping our picky eaters overcome fears, worries, and refusal with new foods is HARD. Try your best to be consistent, positive, and encouraging as this is so essential in supporting our children. With simple mealtime swaps, you truly can replace mealtime stress with positivity and fun, which will naturally support a healthy relationship with mealtime and food that our picky eaters need!
Kristen Wilcox, MS, OTR/L