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:
- Offering him another utensil (something more fun maybe, like a digger fork)
- Using a toothpick (when appropriate)
- Pulling out a different dip
- Changing the shape of a food on the fly
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.
Get More Tips for Picky Eating
The BEST Strategy for Picky Eating
The Most Amazing Healthy Snacks for Picky Eaters
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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.
Didn’t read every comment here, but I’m seeing a few specific to protein (used interchangeably with the word meat) which got me thinking. If a kid flat refuses a specific group of foods, could there be an underlying immune sensitivity? As an example, I’ve had a grain sensitivity most my life, but was never allowed to be picky about my food. Last year, I got really sick because I’d been eating something my immune system can’t handle for 20+ years. Kids, especially young kids, can’t always understand or express symptoms like what I experienced. It’s possible in some cases “picky” is their only defense.
Absolutely Raidon, that’s a great point, I think for the most point its rarer for this to be the case BUT that’s why I’m a big proponent of not forcing and building off foods they like to expand variety. And as sensory processing improves, many kids readily accept new foods, if it doesn’t it may point to more of an allergy situation- when its isolated as you suggested:)
That’s why I clarified “specific.” Like always refusing beef, no matter how you fix it, or anything with wheat flour in it or what have you. I agree it may be more rare, but it’s definitely something I’ll need to account for when I have kids, since grain sensitivities can run in families, and my husband has a casein sensitivity.
My 1.5 yo won’t eat unless is fruits, oatmeal, cereal….. crackers and his bottles.
I am having a hard time following the Dr’s instructions on offering him the same food the rest of the family eats, and let him “understand” that he can no longer choose his “sweet foods”….. he doesn’t eat meat, fish, chicken, eggs, nor pasta, rice…….. I am desperate here….. on one side I’d like to just let him eat whatever he wants….. but on the nutritional side…. I know he needs to get that protein….. he is still in a good weight but Dr told me he will start getting low because of the food he is consuming/accepting…….
He told me not to force my little boy eating the food we all eat, but also not giving him any other option…… (no water, no snacks, no bottle) until next food time arrives…… He cries and cries and doesn’t eat a bit…
I totally get it Carolina! I’ve helped so many people in your situation before, and have even been in it myself. Let me first say this, I think you need to strike a balance here and offer him new foods, without forcing while always having at least one preferred food. I think this post will be really helpful: The best strategy for picky eaters. And, this one as well: How to Prevent Toddlers from Becoming Picky Eaters. Take a look at those and let me know if you have more questions! But, I will also say that if you are looking for some direct help, I have an online class you can join that will walk you through all of this with direct support for me, if you can find more out about it here.
If your child isn’t eating what you want him to eat, serve it to him again at the next meal and he doesn’t get anything until what he didn’t want to eat is finished. For example, if little guy doesn’t eat his broccoli then fine, but he isn’t getting anything else at the next meal until said cold mushy broccoli is gone. Not only will it completely fix the issue after a day or two, but it will teach your child to be grateful for the food they do have, and also a level of self discipline that most parents don’t provide for their children now a days. Children should be grateful for the food provided to them, especially if it is healthy. It is a LIFE SKILL to eat that way, not something you should beg someone to do after they’re a toddler. Don’t believe me? – try it for a week (without giving in. period.) – and see how much your life changes for the better.
Actually Michelle, I’ve working with many families that have tried the very technique you described and they never did eat. While the majority of kids will eventually eat, around 10% of all kids actually won’t eat eventually and will end up hospitalized on a feeding a tube. Some children, like the many I work with, have serious medical, sensory, or motor difficulties that make eating difficult and not just a behavior. I’m glad you’ve found successful solutions for your children, but this is certainly not a one size fits all strategy.
Thank you for saying this. I hate this kind of tough love advice. I tried, and it was awful for everyone. Waking up in the middle of the night because his stomach hurt. We didn’t get any sleep and everything else became harder. We are signed up for a pediatric dietician now, and I wish I had listened to my gut: my kid will not eat if he doesn’t want it.
That sounds really stressful for you and your little one! It is true that some kids won’t eat, even if they’re hungry. You might want to try to always feed your son a food that you know he enjoys (in addition to the foods you are working on) during each meal. That way you know he won’t go hungry. Our free workshop for picky eating will also give you some ideas to get started. You can save your seat HERE.
Your Kids Table Team
Thanks for your tips! I’m hopeful to try some new strategies as my 2 year old went from eating everything to a very picky list. eg. she used to eat eggs 2-4/week with us for breakfast and now she won’t even look at them! She still has her preferred foods, but they all vary in colour or consistency and I can’t seem to find a pattern. She loves chicken noodle soup minus the chicken, broccoli, sweet potatoes, cereal, cashews, berries and cheese sandwiches. She’s recently decided that she would rather live off of milk.. I’ve limited her to 2 cups a day but there are some days that she barely eats anything and wants the milk- by the end of the day I give her more milk because I feel bad she hasn’t eaten and I want her to sleep. (we also went through a sleep regression stage). It has been a pretty stressful couple of months, but we do not have meal time struggles- if she’s done I don’t push her. I’m afraid I’m being too soft. could her senses have changed that much in just a couple of months?
Love your ideas! Your main picture makes me nervous though because you have uncut grapes on the plate which are extremely dangerous for toddlers because they can become lodged in their throat. It would be awful if someone copied the meal in that picture and caused a tragedy for them.
To be honest when I took this pic I was scrambling just to get an image for this long post. I really wish I would have cut the grapes. It was nothing my son was actually eating at the time, but a staged photo. Yes I always cut grapes until at least 4-5 years of age. I addressed this in an earlier comment and many places on this blog. Thank you for taking the time to make sure people were aware of this choking hazard.
Thank you for replying! I didn’t realize it had already been addressed in the comments above (my crazy toddler only let me read a few of them) 😉 I’m sorry about that!
I’m really excited to try your ideas! My little guy hates to try anything new!
It’s okay! I know how that is! I’m actually pretty neurotic about the choking hazards, I get it! Remember that many toddlers are picky, if you keep the environment no-pressure, provide the structure, and are consistent you will be in good shape. If you can do the extra stuff I talked about here, it will be really awesome. Best of luck!
The grapes freaked me ouuuuut! I choked on one as a child, so I definitely do quarters per the recommendation.
I am so happy to have found this site through Pinterest. My youngest just turned 9 and still is limited in the foods he will eat. Peanut butter and yogurt are his only sources of protein. He will not eat meats of any kind, nor will he eat beans, nuts or cheeses. He likes cheese flavored crackers, but not actual cheese. He was a great eater up until he turned two and learned the word no. Immediately, he began to refuse foods he’s eaten and loved. He never had any choking episodes, but his picky eating turned into full blown aversion and to this day will vomit if a food smells strongly or if we make him try a bite. I have spoken with his pediatrician, who immediately dismissed my concerns and explained to him that he needed to take as many bites of a new food as he was old. (he was four at the time) After having spent many times cleaning up the dinner he’d thrown up when we’d given him new foods to try, I explained to his doctor that just telling him to try bites wasn’t going to work. She shushed me, told me she was speaking to my son & I left her office in a fury. I’ve gotten no help from any other doctors since. I’m assuming that the smell is part of the sensory issue with him, and I’m pretty sure texture is another one. I just want to help him have a healthy life & not grow up eating peanut butter off a spoon & living on crackers, berries and a few random veggies. I will go back and read all the posts to figure out a good spot to begin. I am so thankful to learn that we’re not alone!
Forgive me for taking so long to reply. Sadly your story is so common, many pediatricians have little or no feeding training. They often dispense ill advise. As you will see on my site, around 10% of kids will not eat non preferred foods. Sounds like your son is in that category. He is not too old to have feeding therapy if that is an option for you, and I would certainly interview the therapist in advance to make sure you like the therapy route they will take. As far as this site goes, make sure you check out the article index in the menu bar, you will see a full list of all posts. Oh, and, yes, both smell and texture can be sensory related.
Good morning. I’m grandmother to a two and half year old granddaughter. Very fussy about food. She doesn’t eat porridge when she’s with me. I’ve tried all sorts of porridge. One or two spoons, then don’t want anymore. Lunch dinner the ssame, she would ask for noodles and love french fries. She’s tiny and has a very fast metabolism. I try all styles and ways to make eating pleasure.
Hi Hermie, thanks for stopping by. I would also make sure that you have something at the meal that she likes, eat with her at a table, and space her meals so they are 2.5-3 hours apart. I would have her help you cook as well, this gives her a chance to interact with the food. Try not to pressure her and make a real routine out of the meal. If you aren’t with her a lot it will be hard to make significant changes but this will help.
Well done! As a behavior consultant with a strong interest in sensory issues, I think you’ve covered it all! It can be difficult to be so objective with your own child, but you have addressed each area logically and thoroughly, with a solid plan for making change. Although you didn’t specifically say this, you realize that YOU are the one who needs to do things differently, make a change, in order for your child to change. 🙂 That’s a critical aspect of a behavior plan that many adults don’t want to hear; they want the child to magically change on their own. Abracadabra never works in real life!!
Awww, thanks Cindy! That is so nice to hear! And, yes, I have often found the same to be true!
My daughter isn’t so much a picky eater but she does not like feeding herself. She is 1 and I’ve been working with her with a sippy cup and using forks and spoons but she refuses majority of the time to feed herself she will not drink unless it’s held for her she will eat with forks and spoons but only if someone else is doing the actual feeding. She will feed herself cut up chicken nuggets, cheerios, and puffs but that’s about it.any advice on getting her more comfortable self feeding ?
I love these ideas and believe some of them would work with my 12 year old, who still to this day is the pickiest eater. He has a serious gag reflex and is very reluctant to try anything new
As fat as I can tell he has no other sensory issues. We’ve worked with him since infancy (where all of this started). Would love to hear any ideas you may have for me. Great info here
Hi, thank you for this post! My son has been a picky eater ever since so we can definitely incorporate these tips. One question – where did you get that cool placemat from?!?!
Toys R Us.. they come personalized too!
thank you for this post. I wonder, have you had any time where none of the above written ideas worked. That is where we are today. My daughter is getting worse at liking the few foods she even will eat now; so even putting one favorite in the meal is turning into less and less for us to choose from. No meats now, one pasta type food, 3 fruits, one specific frozen pizza, and cereal with milk are all that is left on her list. I don’t know what to do as you can tell. If you have any further ideas I would love them. thanks!
Do you have suggestions for infants? My daughter is 11 months old and shows zero interest in picking little bits of food up or eating anything other than pureed baby food. She also has severe reflux, which has led to poor weight gain. We’ve seen countless doctors and specialists and can’t seem to get any answers on how to make meal time more pleasant, or how to work with her on self-feeding.
Forgot to mention: she refuses to eat textures and makes herself gag with even the smallest pieces of cut-up food.
Hi Cory, Sorry for the delay in this response. I would see the article on how to self feed to start, which you can find in the article index in the menu bar. Keep mealtimes short and add calories to whatever foods she is eating. Think about drizzling olive oil into pureed foods, for example. Demonstrate and start by just getting her to interact. If you are in the states she may also qualify for free in home feeding therapy- see the article Help for infants, early intervention. Let me know if you need more help!!
Thanks so much for this post! I found you by Google and read your “How to Get Your Kid to Eat Meat” post. I have a 3 almost 4 year old that refuses to eat meat. He used to love peas and pasta, but now refuses to eat that. He has Down Syndrome and is in a PPCD class, and I am afraid that he’s regressed a little. He used to have great habits, such as using his spoon and fork appropriately, and now he is back to using his hands or the opposite side of silverware. Dinner is the most frustrating time for me, and the weekends. He literally only eats fruit cups, yogurt, graham crackers, Nutrigrain bars, bananas, oatmeal, cereal, & hot dogs. It’s shameful to me because I feel like I am failing him! He recently tried (and devoured) sliced strawberries, but I am concerned because he is almost 4 and refuses to try anything. We use the sauce trick – he loves ketchup and will eat it on anything (even graham crackers-*shudders*). Lately, we’ve had to coax him to eat his hot dogs, and I know they aren’t very healthy but it is a solid choice right now. This was a very informative post and I want to check out those Funbites! Thanks!
Thanks Viktoria, it sounds like you are doing a great job, don’t be so hard on your self! I think a lot of the ideas in this post will be helpful for you. Also, don’t worry to much about the healthiest food choices. Goal number one is to get him eating, plus you can buy some fairly “healthy” hot dogs. Best of luck!
This is a great post. It makes me feel that I am not the only person struggling with a massively fussy eater. When people say they have a “fussy eater” I often want to give them my son for the day to experience my world. Tobias had sever reflux as a baby and spent a long time on medication. I have been told that this is where his lack of interest in food began although I have my doubts. He has always been small (0.4th percentile for height and ranging between 0,4th and 2nd for height) he is now 3 and wears 12-18 or 18-24 month clothes. His appetite is tiny. 3-5 teaspoons for breakfast. 1/4 of a sandwich and some crisps for lunch with some cucumber and carrot sticks and hummous and a small amount of dinner (curry, chilli con carne or fish fingers and chips……possibly spag bol but he will not eat anything else. He has no snacks. He will not try any new foods…………he will not touch them, tolerate them near him and if any new item is placed in his vicinity, he will not eat at all. We went hard-line a year ago and tried to insist he ate new foods. He stopped eating completely. We relented but he didn’t and was hospitalized and put on a nasal feeding tube as he lost 1kg in 3 weeks 1/8 of this body weight). The only way to get him to sit at a table is to read books. This makes food time difficult as I have to juggle reading, feeding him when he decides to stop (usually after 1 mouthful) feed my 9 month old and try not to let my 5 year old feel too left out……..oh yes and try and eat myself. I have tried so hard to get him to eat. He finds it very hard to touch food and we have been working on desensitizing him. I try and do messy play as often as possible and play with food………….but it is soul destroying to have been working on this for 2 years and to have got what seems such a short distance………..I feel I have tried everything…………any pointers…ideas…………..anything you could offer would be great. He is now seeing a OT but I see no improvement in diet or volume of food.