We are definitely in a valley with Isaac now, with a few red flags of regression. I can’t say I’m surprised. The last 4 months were challenging in my house, as I was extremely sick with my third pregnancy. I was barely functioning and our whole routine was thrown up in the air.
We, my husband, did his best to keep up with all of our usual feeding strategies, but combined with the shake up in Isaac’s routine, he started refusing some of his favorite foods like rice and grapes.
Not only did I see him refusing them, but when he tried to eat, there were shudders and obvious discomfort. Those are some of the red flags I was talking about. I knew we were going to have to regroup and come at this with a strong plan in mind so that he didn’t slip any further back.
I also have to admit that in the last year, I’ve gotten lazy about some strategies that I know work, even before I was sick, which is why we may have been in a valley in the first place. Yes, I wished he was eating more foods, but he was doing decently and I had become comfortable enough with what he was eating.
Now that I’m feeling better and we are back to our regular routine, I really want to get him eating as well as possible, especially before the huge change of a new baby. I thought it would be helpful to show all of you my line of thought as a therapist, but also, you’ll see how I have to make this work as a mom. I often share one strategy at a time, but wanted to give you the big picture with all of the steps in one place so you can pull together a plan that works for you and your child.
You will find highlighted links throughout to give you more information on topics I’ve written about in the past. Plus, look for the sign up for the free picky eating workshop at the end of the post!
I am grateful to FunBites for partnering with me to bring you “My Treatment Plan”. It’s a perfect fit because FunBites also believes in helping children eat more nutritious and varied foods. They actually designed the cutter to help their daughter get over her picky eating. Click here and here for past reviews of FunBites and coupons. I’ll be talking more specifically about how I’ll be using FunBites as one of the strategies in my big plan in a few minutes.
The Scoop on Isaac…
Isaac is 2 years and 9 months. As a baby, he was very slow to take homemade baby food and was fine with just a few bites. At 8 months, he was still barely eating and the more I tried, the more he refused. I felt pretty confident (and still do) that most of his eating difficulties were sensory based. I worked with him intensely for 3-4 months to get him eating. I was pleased by 12 months and continued to maintain some basic strategies to keep improving his picky eating.
*Come learn the 3 Keys to Turn Picky Eating Around in my free workshop! We’ll send you a free workbook too!*
My Plan for Picky Eaters
For me, the first step was to get back to maintaining the basic eating strategies that I know work and are critical to being able to make any headway at all. In a nutshell, here are the “rules” that we have always tried to be consistent about for both of our boys:
- Space Meals 2.5 – 3 hours apart with nothing but water in between for optimal appetite. Count from the start of one meal to the next, this does include snacks.
- Serve one food that is preferred (one you know they will eat) at each meal.
- Expose him regularly to new or refused foods by at least having him tolerate them on his plate.
- Keep mealtimes as positive of an experience as possible. This can be challenging at times and with a two year old, isn’t always possible. We specifically avoid getting into power struggles over food or talking negatively about his lack of variety. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t frustrated at times, but we do our best to keep that from him.
Step #2: Address What We’ve Gotten Lazy About (And Need to Start Doing)
This is where my laziness shines through. I KNOW these strategies work. Besides chronicling them here, I get frequent feedback from consults and families I work with that these things can make all the difference. But, I also know that I’m a mom with a variety of balls I’m juggling – just like you – and sometimes this stuff slips through the cracks. When your kid’s eating regresses or never gets off the ground, it doesn’t always mean that you need different or new strategies, but you need to revisit things you know work and be consistent about doing them! Here are some of the things we have slacked off on:
- Strapping Him In – I know you may think this is overkill at his age, but for most kiddos, it will save you a lot of needless aggravation. Many toddlers don’t have the attention span until after 3 and will just flee at a moment’s notice. Isaac does say, “I’m all done and slides down,” sometimes just minutes into the meal. When we strap him in, it heads all this off and keeps him working at his dinner (his most difficult meal of the day) for much longer before we try and offer up some redirection. We have “lost” many meals because he gets down and it is too difficult to get him back without it turning into a major struggle.
- Changing it up – Sometimes kids get stuck in a rut during a meal that doesn’t start off on the right foot and a simple change can get them eating again. This takes little effort, but we have gotten fairly inconsistent about some of my go-to change ups:
Isaac using his favorite dip, BBQ sauce, for his non-preferred food of chicken that was cut into little squares with the FunBites cutter!
- Serving Family Style – This simple trick can change the whole mood of the meal, in a good way, and typically gets your kiddo interacting with all the food in some way.
- Cooking Meals Together – I’m embarrassed to admit that I have slacked off on this. Early in Your Kid’s Table’s life, I wrote about and practiced this A LOT. Of course, this does take some planning on your end and, depending on the child, you may need to let them know early in the day that they are going to be helping. Don’t present it as a choice (You can present what they want to help with as a choice: Do you want to stir or help chop the broccoli?) .
- Since I have started to implement cooking together again recently, I’m overwhelmingly reminded of its sheer power! I’m not saying that your kid is suddenly going to sit down and eat up all of that potato soup he normally doesn’t even look at, BUT maybe he will try it and not act like it is a bowl of poison. That is what happened with Isaac last week, he tried a few bites without a word from me after helping us prepare all the veggies and witnessing the complete assembly of the soup. That is total success!!!
Making chicken pot pie together.
Step #3: Turn It Up A Notch
Most of these strategies I have used in the past and use regularly with the families I work with, but they require a bit more effort and planning. However, with a little organization, all of these strategies are very do-able!
- Daily Sensory Bins – I make this recommendation often and know that it is important. I kind of think of this as a good foundation to prepping their sensory system and helping it develop along. After all, these bins are great for any child, picky eater or not. But, I think I may have underestimated it’s usefulness, as it relates to the tactile sense. Recently, one of the families I work with prepared a variety of sensory bins to play in daily and they really followed through. Their son, who had some serious sensitivities to a variety of textures, almost suddenly started to eat a wide variety of foods after months of weekly therapy. It was one of the biggest jumps I’ve ever seen a child make so quickly and sustain, by the way.
- So yes, I will be aiming for sensory bin play at least 4-5 times a week. For Isaac, the messier the better (think shaving cream and cloud dough). If your child is still young and putting everything in their mouth, see this baby safe list. And, if this sensory stuff is new to you, make sure you read the connection between sensory processing and picky eating, it can be a total game changer!
Large bins, like this one filled with birdseed, that kids can actually sit in will intensify the experience.
- Playing with Food – That’s right, playing with food! When mealtimes stall, the best way to get kids reengaged is to model some interaction with food in a way that is comfortable for them and encourages them to imitate you. You have to make time for this at the end of the meal and put your creativity hat on to hook into your kid’s interest. My goal is to work on this 5-6 nights a week at least, because the more I do it, the more improvement I will see.
- Using FunBites – The FunBites cutter makes small uniform shapes a breeze and kids with sensory and chewing difficulties love the clear, consistent, small pieces of food. It is easy to use and clean. Ultimately, it helps kids feel more comfortable with new or refused foods and with a big dose of fun. Check out more fun plates for kids and other cool tools!
Up close of small chicken pieces which were more manageable. Isaac tried a bite or two with BBQ sauce, which is good progress for him.
- Building off Foods – We will be making a new list of all Isaac’s foods that he eats and how to make our way towards some groups of foods he doesn’t do so good with like chicken and vegetables. The idea is to start with something they like and start making small changes, slowly changing one food after the next until you build a bridge to a new food. My goal is to try and think of tastes and textures that he is already moving towards or at least has some familiarity with. For instance, he eats sugar snap crisps (dehydrated) so I will work towards fresh ones and maybe green beans because they are similar in shape and color. I will serve them together and talk about their similarities and differences. It can take some time to reach your end game and obviously some planning, but it is a very effective tool.
- Fun Presentations – Personally this is probably my least favorite suggestion. It just isn’t my thing and I get overwhelmed by it quickly. Too bad, I know that green beans made into a sailboat are pretty motivating for kids, including Isaac. With tons of inspiration on Pinterest (See my Kids and Food board), it isn’t too hard to think up some ideas. I will be trying this 1-2 times a week because while it can be helpful in increasing the interaction (and hopefully consumption of) new foods, I also don’t want to turn meals into a constant art exhibit. Kids need to see food in a variety of ways, not just in cool pictures. My goal is to have something fun 1-2 times a week. Here is some inspiration from The Pleasantest Thing.
Whew, that’s my plan. I hope that it wasn’t overwhelming and if it was, break it down into small manageable pieces, and you can follow the outline in a step by step manner if that is helpful… slowly incorporating it all together.
More Help for Turning Your Picky Eater Around
1. Get in the FREE Picky Eating Workshop! Seriously, this is an amazing and free little class that gives me the chance to dive into some of what we talked about today with a lot more depth! Plus, when you hear the strategies and really take them in, you’ll be more successful putting them into place in your own home. Sign up right here!
2. If you live in the USA and your child is under 3, your state is required to provide a free in home feeding evaluation. If your child is over 3 or you want some other options, read everything you need to know about feeding therapy.
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Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 17 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.