A toddler’s favorite word during mealtime is “no!” We even get this response from our ‘best eaters!’ However, mealtimes should not be a constant battle that puts stress on your family. Picky eating often looks like a behavioral issue when in fact there might be something else (sensory, motor, structural, or medical) going on. Consult with your pediatrician or a speech language pathologist if your child eats less than 20 foods and/or is ruling out entire food groups (i.e. Only eats carbs).
Change the focus from your child eating to enjoying your time together at the table. Toddlers are able to read and understand the cues that we give off (stressed vs. relaxed). They are more likely to eat when there is less pressure on them. It’s also important to eat with your child because eating is actually a learned behavior! By eating with your child, you are providing models to perform a circular-rotary or adult-like chewing!
For example, if your child eats mac and cheese, try a different kind of cheese with the recipe. If your child loves bread, try buying a different brand or lightly toasting the bread. Other ways to make modifications are changing the temperature (put it in the freezer or fridge before serving), adding spices, adding a dipping sauce, changing the color or shape. For some children, they may only be able to handle very small changes at first. Get creative- cut cucumbers into hearts, serve the food as a smiley face on the plate, make home-made oven fries!
That way there is always something on the table that your toddler will eat. Remember- as a parent, you are in charge of what’s for dinner and your kiddo is in charge of if and how much they eat.
If they are ok with having it on their plate, they may surprise you and try a bite when you’re not looking!
It is crucial that your child is in an optimal arousal state so their little bodies are ready to eat and so they can attend to what’s on the table. Participating in a sensory motor activity before eating such as having a quick dance party, blowing bubbles, or playing outside can help them self-regulate. Minimize distractions at the table- this includes the chairs they are sitting on. Have you ever felt uncomfortable or distracted on a tall bar stool with your feet dangling? That’s how some kiddos feel on chairs without foot support.
Bring your child to the grocery store! Point out the foods that they know, point out the foods that they don’t know. Talk about the colors and smells all around you. Get your little one involved in cooking and setting the table. Remember, children love to imitate and that’s how they learn, so without pressure you can eat while making lunch. For example, maybe you stick your finger in the peanut butter jar and have a lick! Maybe you bite a string bean and talk about the crunch sound it makes. AKP Speech Therapy uses the Sequential Oral Sensory (SOS) approach to feeding which involves exposing new foods in a hierarchical approach (Toomey & Sundseth, 2011) from tolerating the food to swallowing the food. If your child helps bring food to the table (even if it’s just 1 piece of bread) they are already at the stage of interacting with the food.
Instead of “yummy,” use words like crunchy, salty, juicy, and savory. This is helpful when introducing a new food and comparing it to a food they already know and like. For example, when trying watermelon for the first time I might say something like, “This is juicy and red just like a strawberry!”
Remember you are not alone! Toddlers refusing food is typical. Toddlers receiving inadequate nutrition because of food refusal is not.
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By: Alexandra Princiotta, Feeding Therapist, MA CCC-SLP
2 years ago