When it comes to mealtime and struggling with picky eating, times (and strategies) have changed! If you have been to in-person markets in the past, you know there are lots of mother/daughter shoppers who attend these events together (I'm talking about an adult daughter and her mother). When I see them coming to my booth I sometimes preemptively play out how the conversation will go in my mind (I try not to stereotype, but 50% of the time my prediction is correct).
The conversation usually goes something like this:
Daughter: "Oh, wow! Look how cute these plates are!"
Mother: "Oh, neat. What are they for?"
Me: "They are a tool for picky eaters."
Me: enthusiastically - "The 2-ounce picky portion allows the child to veto a small portion of their meal in order to gain some control at mealtime and feel empowered to make decisions on their own."
Daughter: "Oh what a cool idea!"
Mother: eyeball rolling is audible - "That is ridiculous! Kids should sit at the table and eat what they are given. I did when I was young and my children did it too! This generation is too coddling when it comes to stuff like this."
Me: smiling painfully "Ok, well thanks for your feedback."
Part of me sympathizes with the mother, as preparing meals for your family every night can be exhausting. Then to have most of it left untouched can be deflating. For some families, how much gets eaten at these times is non-negotiable. Growing up, it was a non-negotiable in my house as well. Clearing my plate (no matter what was served) was expected. It did not change the fact that I was an extremely picky eater! Or, that it made me fear trying new things and I often gagged at the thought of sitting down for a meal.
So, I say, we are restructuring our picky eater's mindsets, over coddling them, when it comes to the modern-day mealtime setting.
Many have heard it before, we decide what is served and your child decides how much they will eat.
Building a healthy relationship with food and creating positive experiences to foster that relationship can be fun and less combative if we change our attitude toward mealtime with our fussy eaters.
The following is a list of strategies and games that can be used on a regular basis to build your child's confidence with food and help everyone relax and enjoy mealtimes. Some strategies should be viewed as a fun game and used at non-mealtimes.
*Try 1 strategy at a time. Use it a few times over a week and if it doesn't work then you can try a new strategy or game. Too much, too fast can overwhelm and confuse them.*
Spin the bottle - This game is a lot of fun! As you play it more and more, allow your children to get involved with the setup, allow them to choose a few of the foods you set out. On a table, lay out 8-12 small amounts of fruits, veggies, nuts, and sweets in a circle (a few things you want them to try and a few things you know they like). Before you begin, let them know that 'trying' something means they can lick, bite, or eat the item the bottle lands on. Take turns spinning a bottle in the middle. If you want to get creative, you can add rules or surprises where they can pass their turn to someone else, trade items with a family member, or gain a veto pass.
Mystery food game - When your child is becoming more adventurous with food, place a variety of foods on a plate and cover with a tea towel. Have them close their eyes and open their mouth. They can either guess what they are tasting or describe texture and flavour (creamy, smooth, crunchy, sour, bitter, sweet, umami). If your child is extremely apprehensive about trying new things then make this a game where they choose 2 items to be on the plate and you choose 2 items. Then you each take turns feeding each other a mystery item. If they see you modeling adventurous behaviour without pressuring them, they will eventually follow. Be patient! If they are uncomfortable, move on to a different strategy and come back to this one at later date.
Explore with Senses - Give your child 4 food items and let them decide what to do with each based on their senses. Place the 4 different items on a plate or placemat. Write the words TASTE, TOUCH, SMELL, and SEE on pieces of paper and let them organize the items according to how they want to experience each thing. This one is really good if your child is extremely selective with food. Remind them that they only have to taste 1 of the 4 foods! Tasting can be licking, biting, or eating the item. A good way to start this is to include foods you know they will like (to build confidence) and then slowly swap out 1 or 2 items the more you play this game. You can also let them select 4 foods for you and have you model how it works, first. Using your senses, show your child how you explore each item.
Choose 2 - Choose 2 food items (ingredients) and they choose 2 and then make up a recipe together. Get creative! To start, maybe let them choose all 4 items. Even if they choose all the things you know they will eat and nothing new, go with it! It is a journey to trying new things and we have to be patient and relaxed. Name the recipe and have your child introduce the dish at mealtime and describe what it is. The ownership is a great feeling for little ones and they will be more likely to take part in their own efforts.
Try spot - If you have a Picky Plate, you can use the 2-ounce picky portion or you can place a small bowl or plate beside their dinner plate for this strategy. Place a very small portion of something you want them to try on that section (the basil leaf in the picture below). Let them know it is something they can try, if they like (no pressure) remind them that trying can be licking, small bite, big bite, or eating fully. Or, let them choose a sense to explore the food item. Tell them they can smell, touch, see, or taste (this will slowly lead to trying more things. Just be patient). No matter what happens, keep reintroducing foods without prompting or pressuring your child. As an example, serve the usual foods you know they will like and put 1 blueberry or a small carrot or whatever you want them to try in the try spot. Offer the same thing to everyone else at the table too so you can all model eating that food.
Mealtime Fun! - There is a free downloadable list of 100 conversation starters and fun or funny tasks to do at mealtime in the shop section on this website. You can cut the questions and tasks out and place them in a bowl in the middle of the table and take turns pulling and reading for people. As usual, let them have 1 veto.
Family style dinners - At mealtime, you offer multiple things and everyone dishes for themselves. We do this with tacos, salads, charcuterie, etc. Put everything in the middle and let everyone select what to put on their pates. My kids feed off each other and will often follow each other’s lead and are way more adventurous with food when they feel in control. If you need to, at first, let them select 2 things and you can select 2 things to be on their plate. The idea is for them to eventually build the confidence to dish for themselves and hopefully make some healthy choices.
I Spy - We sometimes go around in a circle at the table and play I Spy with the things on our plates. Whoever guesses correctly gets to choose who in the family eats the thing that was guessed. Again, start slow! They can choose to lick, bite or eat the item and allow each member of the family to have 1 veto.
Share table - Some people may remember this from elementary school! I used to put my whole lunch on the share table (sorry, mom). Have a small tray or cutting board in the middle of the table where you can each offer up something you don’t want to eat. Everyone in the family can choose 1 or 2 things to place on the share table. Then anyone in the family can eat whatever they like from the share table along with their meal. A good way to get this off the ground is for you to begin with placing something on the share table from your plate that you know your child will like. Also, model taking something off the share table that you may not like as much but are willing to try.
Reverse Psychology - For some kids, at certain ages, it may be a control thing that they are trying over actually being picky. The more you pretend it doesn't bother you (while actually screaming and pulling your hair out on the inside) the more likely they will eventually drop some of the behaviour. This next strategy might be a little controversial because we don't want to encourage naught behaviour but my kids think this is hilarious and it's a definite way in our household to get our kids to try new things....place a few plates of fruits, veggies, nuts, herbs, or whatever you want them to try on the table or counter. Then tell them that you have prepared some snacks for visitors that are coming over (no one is ever coming over haha). Then instruct them not to touch the snacks and then leave the room. Their curiosity will get the best of them and they will more than likely check it out. My kids still don't know that I am watching from around the corner. I will wait a bit and enter the room and pretend like I am confused and thought I prepared more food than what is there. I love watching them giggle to each other help me look for the missing food. I think my oldest kid is starting to catch on to my game but he still loves playing it.