Feeding Picky Eaters

As parents, there are many things outside our control. We might try to enforce our schedules and desires, but our children are their own people, with their own likes, dislikes and strong wills.  

And when your child won’t eat the food you put on their plate, it can be a vexing experience. 

Many kids with special needs have food aversions, so what do you do when it feels like you’ve tried everything and nothing is working? Here are some tangible tips to get your child to move from picky to at least willing to give some new foods a try.   

Try Bland Foods 

There’s a reason we see a lot of the same items on the kids menus at restaurants. Kids tend to like more bland tasting foods than adults, and the reason for this may be somewhat biological.  

The taste buds of children are more intense than those of adults. Couple that with the fact that some children with special needs are hypersensitive to sensory stimuli, and this means a food they don’t enjoy may actually taste very, very bad to them. Because of this, you may want to limit the amount of strong tasting foods you introduce at a young age, especially if your child is sensitive to stimulus.  

Increase Exposure 

Repeated exposure to foods we dislike might actually help us to like them in the long run. But how do you get that exposure if your child is refusing to eat?  

One option is to try using a reward system. For example, if your child doesn’t like peas, start with just one pea. Let your child know if they eat a pea, they will receive a sticker on their food chart. Every pea equals one more sticker. After they get a certain amount of stickers, they can choose a prize or something they enjoy. Make the reward unique and motivating by choosing things they love.  

Oftentimes, children with special needs enjoy structure. Explain to them how this food chart will work and at each meal, offer a food that will give them the potential to earn a sticker on their chart. This can make mealtime something your child looks forward to, instead of something you both dread.  

Relax Before Mealtime 

If mealtime has become a battle zone, your child might be experiencing anxiety around sitting down for dinner. This anxiety response can reduce hunger, making the idea of eating even less appealing.   

If you sense your child feeling anxious prior to meals, try using relaxation techniques. Let your child know you will be eating in 10 minutes, but prior to that, you will sit down and breathe deep together. Try box breathing. Breathe in for the count of four, hold for four and breathe out for four. Do this for as long as it takes until you feel your child has calmed down and is ready to move to the table.  

Acknowledge the Fear 

For some kids, food aversion is more than just not liking something. It is a legitimate fear, and it needs to be addressed. It might be a fear of foods that are certain colors or textures. Or it might be a type of food.  

If you know your child has a fear of foods, then slow exposure is key. If they don’t like foods that are orange, try showing them an orange food from far away. As they are able to get closer to the food, have them touch it, or stick a fork in it and see how it feels. Challenge them to face their fears gradually and reward them with praise. This also may be best done in a clinical setting with a professional instead of at home.  

We are all unique and there are many reasons children are picky eaters. Like with all things, you know your child best. Please be encouraged and know it is possible to work through the picky eating phase and hopefully come to the other side. If you feel your child is struggling to get the nutrients needed for growth and development, be sure to have medical professionals on board to both monitor and help your child. They may suggest nutrient rich drinks and vitamins to help supplement those things they are currently lacking. 

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