Want to know what foods to get your picky eater to eat first? Well, let me show you how I got my extreme picky eater loving all kinds of meats and adding vegetables to his diet too!
Can I be honest with you?
There’s a question I dread being asked as an occupational therapist: “Do you have any recipes for picky eaters?”
It’s a fair enough question, and the truth is I do know the answer, but 9 times out of 10 the parent asking is looking for a quick answer to get their kid eating new foods. And, I can’t give them a super quick answer that’s actually helpful. Sure, there are some general ideas, foods, and recipes you can use as inspiration, and I’ve shared those many times here on Your Kid’s Table.
Yet, every-time I do, there’s a few comments from parents that say, “My kid wouldn’t eat any of this!!”
That doesn’t annoy me because I know it’s true.
Those lists of recipes are a drop in the bucket, and my hope is they serve to give parents that are struggling with picky eating some ideas.
But, every picky eater is unique and while we can certainly use some recipes and types of food that sometimes work for picky eaters as a guideline, to really help our kids make long lasting change in eating a variety of foods, we’ve got to start with a plan.
My plan is 5 phases, and is something I teach thoroughly inside of my online program Mealtime Works.
But today, I’m going to show you specifically how I used that plan to choose the foods my son was most likely to eat. I’m calling these “magic foods”, in part sarcasm because we always tend to be looking for some magic fairy dust for our picky eaters, but also because these foods were the winning combination for him.
They’re foods that he not only eats, but also loves and enjoys today.
The phases that you’re going to see in this post are what hundreds of students use inside of Mealtime Works and beginning today, the doors to a special Mega-Edition of the class are open, and they won’t be again for at least another year. Right now, you can join Mealtime Works and get 50$ off our regular price and a brand new bonus course: Improving Nutrition and Gut Health in Picky Eaters.
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Why Do I Need a Plan to Know What My Child Will Eat?
I believe that in order to truly move past picky eating, you’ve got to have a road map that you can rely on. That involves having a positive environment for you and your child to eat in and getting to the root of your child’s picky eating. There’s a reason they are a picky eater and until we address it, the picky eating isn’t going to go away.
Some recipes can be helpful and give you a new idea that’s a success for a few meals. And, if you have a picky eater, I know that in and of itself would be a wonderful gift.
But, other recipes will fall flat and when they don’t work, you’ll likely feel frustrated and let down that you put in all the effort for nothing.
Having a plan like Mealtime Works addresses every aspect of picky eating and that’s what will make the real change!
The 5 Phase Plan to Get Your Kid Interested In and Eating New Foods
While I teach this plan in detail inside of Mealtime Works, here’s an overview of the plan:
Phase 1: Create a Positive Eating Environment
That means ditching pressure tactics and old school pressure techniques like bribing, begging, behavior charts, the clean plate club, try-it bites, or using dessert as a reward. The goal is to come to the table and enjoy a meal with your child.
Phase 2: Give Structure and Routine to Mealtime
There’s a balance to not pressuring your child to eat and that means that you feed your child on a schedule and avoid grazing or snacking through the day. It also means that you plan the meals and while you make sure there’s always something at a meal that your child will eat, you are not a short order cook.
Phase 3. Address the Underlying Cause
Since extreme picky eaters are so selective about their foods, it’s critical that you figure out why they are so picky in the first place. There are four main underlying causes: medical, oral motor, sensory, and what I call the snowball effect. The snowball effect is when a child starts off as a great eater, then they enter a typical picky eating phase as a toddler only to have it get much worse over time.
But, identifying what the cause of your child’s picky eating is isn’t enough to see a change in what they’re willing to eat, you also have to address it so they can overcome it.
Phase 4: Teaching Your Child to Eat New Foods
Once you have the first 3 phases in effect, that’s when it’s time to start working on new foods! There’s a method to that. I’m going to show you how I used it for my son. But, I couldn’t have started here because if I had the negative, tense dinner time he was eating in, it would have prevented him from being receptive to exploring or interacting with new foods in any way.
Or, if he had not had any structure, he wouldn’t have felt hungry and I would’ve been battling to just to get him to sit at the table! Although some kids have a great appetite and still have ants in the pants at the table. Head to how to keep your child seated for more.
And, if I hadn’t addressed his underlying sensory issues well, they would have prevented him from showing any interest in new foods.
This phase is about showing your child to eat without pressuring them. I use a few strategies for this that include: Building a Bridge, Food Exploration and Play, and Dips very strategically only at this point in our plan!
Phase 5: Extra Tips and Tricks
With these 4 phases in effect, you can then use some common picky eating tips strategically, like cooking together. This is also when recipes will be much more effective!
How I Used This Roadmap
Since I had been an OT for years before having my kids, I was immediately working on our positive environment and routine. We had this pretty well established. But, my son was showing obvious signs of sensory sensitivity and I knew it was affecting his eating. These are some of the signs I saw:
- Shuddering when seeing other people get messy
- Avoiding getting messy in general, but was fine in the sand or grass
- Gagged as soon as he touched or tasted a new or different food
I addressed those sensory needs in him through sensory bins, a Nuk brush, and vibrating toothbrush!
Since I knew he was choosing foods because of their texture or taste, I started to pay close attention to the types of foods he was eating. And, what foods seemed to be the most difficult for him.
I also took a step back and looked for the gaps in his nutrition. In his case, it was protein and vegetables. I knew that was my ultimate destination and that I needed to use all the steps in the Mealtime Works plan to get us there!
The Foods That Worked for My Son
My son, Isaac, was eating no meat. He had learned to like yogurt and cheese, but I could tell the texture of meat was difficult for him because he shuddered when he was near it. And, I noticed that he liked foods that were crunchy. While this is common for some picky eaters, it’s not always the case.
He was also obsessed with carbs!
So, I focused on chicken because it doesn’t have a strong taste and the texture can be easier to manage when it’s presented in the right way.
I began to serve it to him a couple of times a week. But, I was very thoughtful about how I was cooking the chicken and how I presented it to him. At the same time, I’d sprinkle in some nights where I made chicken how ever I felt like. That means, we had regular ol’ grilled or roasted chicken.
I tried to strike a balance to making specific decisions about food that would help him and food that felt easy for me to prepare as a busy mom. Plus, it’s good for our kids to see foods cooked different ways.
When I was working on serving him his magic chicken foods, I started with Dino Nuggets because they were breaded, thin, and were in the fun shape of a dinosaur.
The shape is motivating for a child, but the fact that this brand (Yummy Dino Buddies) were so thin, I knew that meant less texture for him. I also overcooked them a little so they were crunchy!
Then, I served them over and over and over and over again. We played with them. We dipped them in barbecue sauce, which he learned to love after initially refusing.
At the same time, I was also mincing tiny pieces of chicken into a tortilla for a lunch time quesadilla.
Not in an effort to trick him though.
Sometimes I’d have him help me put the chicken in and sometimes I’d tell him that I did. I didn’t add a lot of chicken and again kept those sizes small so he wouldn’t get overwhelmed with the texture.
It was really important that I didn’t make the food too hard for him to eat.
If I had haphazardly thrown some big pieces or a lot of pieces of chicken in that quesadilla, he would have NEVER taken it. To make that quesadilla even more successful, I grilled it extra long in a pan on the stove so it had a crunch to it. Again, relying on a texture I knew comforted him.
Every choice I made about foods I’d hope he was going to eat took into account how he felt about texture. My goal was always to push him a little out of his comfort zone, but not too far. And, then once he tolerated that new limit, I’d push it a little more the next time.
That means that he ate a hair more chicken in his cheese quesadilla the next time I made it.
I Knew It Was A Breakthrough
I was so relieved the first time he ate half a dino nugget. I knew it was a breakthrough, and that if he could eat half, he could learn to eat a whole nugget and then several nuggets.
And, that’s just what happened, in the coming months, those dino nuggets became one of his favorite foods, and he grew to eat a wide variety of chicken nuggets and ultimately, that plain grilled chicken breast.
Today, at now 8 years old, Isaac loves all kinds of meat. He’s the first one reaching for ribs, chicken legs, or the roast. But, it all started with the dino nuggets and bridging to one food at a time.
And, we wouldn’t have been able to get to that point if we weren’t following our plan!
More “Magic” Foods for Issac
The other food I started to focus on was raw carrots. I’d cut them really thin, again so he wasn’t getting to much texture. And, I made a game out of the crunching noise they made when they bit into them. He latched onto that food quickly and from there also eventually ate celery too!
We also did frozen peas because they have almost no taste or texture. And, I added fresh spinach to his quesadillas and sandwiches. In these cases, he often helped make them. And, we started with one leaf of spinach and a lot of cheese.
I knew he needed to barely taste it for him to tolerate it the first time, so that’s what we did!
Don’t Freak Out If this Happens…
As you and your child work through the Mealtime Works phases, your child may eat something totally unexpected. It might be a texture or flavor you thought would be difficult, but they ate it. When this happens, try to play it cool, like it’s no big deal. Even though you want to run around the house screaming in joy!
At the same time, don’t freak out if some foods fall totally flat. Sometimes we miss the mark, and there’s another component to the food that’s making it really difficult for them.
That’s okay, but make sure you give it a decent try. And, by ‘decent’ I mean like 20-30 times with regular consistency over a few months time!
What Are Your Picky Eaters Magic Foods?
Maybe our kids have similar underlying issues and texture preferences and you can focus on some of the same foods I did. But, your picky eater might be different than mine. If so, I encourage you to go through the Mealtime Works Plan at the top of the post and focus on one phase at a time. When you get to phase 4, then start with foods similar to foods your child already eats.
This is one of several approaches I teach in depth inside Mealtime Works to expand your child’s variety of food, but this is a great place to start finding your child’s magic foods!
If you want ALL the details on this plan, tons of proven therapeutic strategies, helpful handouts, and support from me and a community of parents that gets it, join our special mega edition of Mealtime Works now, it won’t be around for long!
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.