I’m a pediatric occupational therapist that has spent my career helping kids with picky eating. But, the sheer frustration and overwhelm of having my own son that only ate a few foods, gagged and refused new foods, was a huge reality check.
I knew what to do, but putting it into practice in a way that made sense and didn’t stress me out was hard to figure out. It took a total breakdown for me to have the strength to create a plan to teach my son how to eat meat and fruits instead of the crunchy carbs he was addicted to.
I hope that in reading this article you not only get some of my best strategies that are seriously almost impossible to find anywhere else.
But, I also hope you believe that it’s possible for your child too. Picky eating is a journey. It’s not about a single trick or special recipe.
There will be peaks and valleys over the coming months and even years. When you hit a valley its important to not freak out, as tempting as it may be. But, instead work to make sure it’s not a slippery slope into returning to their picky eating ways.
This article has been updated, as it was written a few years back now, but all the strategies are still my go-to and helped me to create the plan I teach inside of my picky eater program, Mealtime Works.
We are definitely in a valley with Isaac now, with a few red flags that his eating is regressing. 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. My husband did his best to keep up with all of our usual picky eating strategies for our 2 year old, but combined with the shake up in Isaac’s routine, he started refusing some of his favorite foods like rice and grapes again.
Not only did I see him refusing to eat these foods, but when he tried to eat them he shuddered and almost gagged. That was a BIG red flag. 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.
When he was 8 months old his picky eating started, and worsed at 9 months old after a stomach virus. For Isaac, the root of his picky eating was because of sensory issues with food.
But, by 1 year old he was eating new foods and mealtimes weren’t stressful. Some of the strategies that got us there are laid out below!
If you’re looking for more make sure you grab a seat in our best resource: the free picky eating workshop, in it I teach you 3 key strategies, that might surprise you!
How Do You Fix Picky Eating?
I get asked this question ALL. THE. TIME.
First, you need to know it’s nothing you did wrong! Kids won’t eat for all sorts of reasons: because of their sensory sensitivities, oral motor skills, food allergies, life experiences, temperament, and other existing diagnoses such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
There is no quick fix, but any picky eater whether a toddler or adult can learn to eat new foods. To “fix” picky eating it’s important to understand that there is a reason why your child is picky, and once you figure out what it is, you can start working toward a solution.
And, with a solid routine, offering a variety, and following the other steps below, even extreme picky eating can be greatly improved. So if you’ve thought to yourself,
“Can picky eating be cured?”
The answer is, yes! But you’ll need a plan.
Step #1 of the Picky Eater Plan
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.
- 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. Using the “division of responsibility” is important for taking the pressure off of not only your child, but you as well.
Step #2: Use Key Picky Eating Strategies
This is where my laziness shines through. I KNOW these strategies work. Besides chronicling them here, I’ve had constant feedback from the families I’ve worked with and students in our picky eating program 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!
Remember what I said about you not causing picky eating? It’s true, but hard work can help. Here are some key picky eating strategies:
- Keep them seated – For toddlers and preschoolers that often means continuing to use a booster seat with the strap. Many toddlers don’t have the attention span until after 3 and will just flee at a moment’s notice. For older kids they may need a wobble cushion or some sensory activities before they come to the table to help them stay seated.
Isaac does say, “I’m all done and slides down,” sometimes just minutes into the meal. When we strap him in at the dinner table, 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. If your kid struggles to sit still head to how to keep kids seated for meals for more tips.
- Make a Quick Change – 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:
- 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. Seeing other family members eating foods is often a great way to encourage your child to do the same.
- Cooking Meals Together – Cooking together is a great way to get your kid interacting with and comfortable with new foods. 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 and a great way to get kids comfortable trying new things!!!
If your child won’t participate in cooking with you yet, try getting their input in the grocery store first. I can’t tell you how many times a simple recommendation from a picky kid at the store can help try something new at the dinner table.
Making chicken pot pie together.
Step #3: Sensory Strategies for Picky Eaters
Most of these strategies I have used in the past and use regularly with the families of fussy eaters 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.
- 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.
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. This is commonly used in feeding therapy, which is therapy for picky eaters!
- Use Fun Tools – Cookie cutters, bento pics, and the FunBites cutter makes small uniform shapes a breeze and kids with sensory and chewing difficulties love the clear, consistent, small pieces of food. Kids love fun tools, even older kids and teens.
- Food Chaining – 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.
Remember, healthy eating habits start slowly, so building off of preferred foods really help some kids bridge the gap from one food to another.
I will say there are some tried and true foods that many picky eaters will try or have an easier time learning to eat. Head to 27 Clever Foods for Picky Eaters for some ideas!
- Present Food in a Fun Way – 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.
If making food look fun feels overwhelming to you too, start small. Maybe you find a cute child’s plate in your kid’s favorite cartoon character? Or you slice bananas and make a face on top of your kids toast. It really can be that simple!
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.
UPDATE on Isaac’s Picky Eating at 12 Years Old
It’s been the better part of a decade since I first wrote this post. Isaac is no longer a picky eater and hasn’t been for some time. But, he didn’t “outgrow it,” as doctors would often have us believe.
It was day after day and month after month, as a 3 year old, 4 year old, and 5 year old. Year after year of being consistent with the step 1 strategies above, and for certain seasons digging in using the other strategies.
After implementing this plan to reverse his picky eating, he began to eat a wider variety of foods once again.
Mostly, progress was slower. He wasn’t eating new foods everyday. But, by age 5 I looked across the dinner table and he was eating a whole piece of grilled chicken. Taking bites off his fork.
He’d never eaten non breaded chicken before that.
That was the gateway to all sorts of other meats. In fact now I can’t think of a meat that he doesn’t eat.
At 6 years old he started to drink smoothies packed with everything you can imagine. He particularly loves to add avocado and spinach in.
At 8 years old he started to eat mixed green salads, and now eats them on the regular.
By 10 years old I realized he may be my most adventurous eater of the three I have. He’s turned into quite a foodie, asking to try unique recipes and often the first to try something unusual at a restaurant when given the chance.
Of course he still has a few foods he doesn’t care for, like seafood, and some plain veggies.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe this is the same kid that gagged when anything other than a cracker or a piece of watermelon was on his plate.
Yet it is, having a plan makes every difference in the world.
This is possible for your kid too!
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Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 19 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.