A fussy eater can make the holidays more challenging, and our favorite fall festivities are fast approaching. There are so many delicious autumn foods to enjoy. Pumpkin spiced pancakes and pecan pie. Crisp sweet apples and salty pumpkin seeds. Turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy.
And you want to share these joys with your child.
The joy can quickly dissolve into stress if you have a fussy eater. Trying to navigate holidays with a child on the comfort food diet (think: mac and cheese, quesadillas, and french fries) might feel overwhelming. Maybe your child is such a fussy eater that she turns up her nose at anything brightly colored or crunchy. Or maybe she spits out almost everything she puts in.
It might be a sensory issue. (1)
The bottom line is that picky eaters need more practice with food and sensory experiences. They need exposure to smells, tastes, textures, and appearances of foods.
Suspected picky eater in your family? Don’t lose hope! With a pinch of patience, a dash of guidance, and a handful of simple activities to try, you’ll be well on your way to food freedom for your family.
How to Deal With Fussy Eaters
Pediatric occupational therapists (OTs) work to help children participate in activities of daily living. One of those activities is eating! (2) Here are some tips from your resident OT to help you feel more in control of the feeding experiences in your household.
Identify Trigger Foods
One important step that many parents skip is to identify which foods your child tolerates and which she does not. There are tests for picky eaters available online, but you can easily gather all the information you need over time.
Keep lists of the foods your child hates and those she loves. Then, look for patterns. Consider several senses (smell, taste, touch, and vision) in these patterns.
Does she have aversions to spicy or bitter foods? All foods that are green? Does she consistently refuse to eat foods of certain categories (e.g., meats or fruits)? Is she sensitive to crunchy or slimy textures? Maybe she’ll eat certain foods by themselves but hates when they are mixed on her plate.
Knowledge is power!
Consider the Environment
Determine things in the environment or in your child that help or hinder mealtime. Consider whether her sensory system is regulated enough to participate in a meal. Is she too tired to eat? Does she get distracted by the television when your family sits down for dinner?
Make changes as needed to set your child up for success.
Keep mealtime predictable and positive. Limit distractions. Think about posture and utensils. Make it a rewarding experience by giving your child extra attention. And have something fun planned afterward.
Prevent a Power Struggle
It can be so frustrating when you just want your child to eat. But raising your voice and threatening consequences will only make meals more challenging.
Engaging in power struggles at the dinner table with your stubborn child will not make her more inclined to try new foods.
Take a deep breath and relax. Pour yourself some spiced apple cide or mulled wine! Push the “reset” button for meals.
Find more feeding tips designed to make mealtime less stressful here!
Activities for Exposing Foods to Fussy Eaters this Fall
Just because you have a fussy eater doesn’t mean they have to be deprived of our favorite fall food experiences! Focus on providing sensory experiences and increasing exposure to new and adventurous foods in fun, festive, and low-pressure ways.
Have a Pie Taste Test
Pie is the quintessential Thanksgiving dessert, and the various kinds of pie provide on-season opportunities to expose kids to new tastes and textures. Pumpkin, apple, sweet potato, and pecan pies are all great starters. Add some whipped cream and cinnamon for an extra special experience. (And be sure to sneak a piece for yourself.)
If your child is unwilling to take bites of the pie, don’t force it! Prioritize progress over perfection. Encourage other ways of engaging with the desserts. Smelling and poking foods tend to be safe ways for sensitive kids to experience new foods. Licking foods or touching them to lips are also strategies to increase engagement.
Go Bobbing for Apples
This favorite fall activity combines breath-work with touch, taste, and proprioceptive sensory input. Your child will have so much fun that she might not even notice all the senses you’re targeting! Kids love water play, and the feeling of the water on their skin and in their hair stimulates the tactile sense. Deep breathing, which will happen naturally in preparation for the apple bobbing, promotes the regulation of their sensory systems.
When your child catches one, encourage her to eat it! Biting and chewing provides excellent proprioceptive input to jaw muscles, and apples are the perfect food for this. The apple’s sweetness will stimulate her sense of taste. Adapt this activity to accommodate an especially sensitive child by allowing the use of hands or tools (like tongs). Bonus: this provides an opportunity to work on fine motor skills!
Cook With the Kids
Get your child involved in the production of the foods! Sometimes, if she feels invested in the process, she feels more inclined to try the end product. And, even if she doesn’t, she’s still getting lots of sensory input and exposure to foods throughout.
Do you cringe when imagining the cooking experience with little ones? No one wants a dusting of flour over every conceivable surface of their home. But, fortunately, professionals have you covered. Check out the Food Network’s Cooking With Kids site for simply, kid-friendly recipes, creative kitchen experiments, and tips for cooking as a family.
Let Them Play Server
Let your little one participate in Thanksgiving dinner (or a dress rehearsal!) by giving her large spoons to serve portions onto plates. This is a great way to expose her to foods she’s not ready to taste or touch herself. Even if she is unwilling to put certain foods (green bean casserole?) on her own plate, she may enjoy serving them onto others’ plates. The game Pancake Pile-Up, included in Sensory TheraPLAY’s July box, is another fun way to practice food interactions (without the actual food).
If it’s a small and quiet Thanksgiving this year (hello, Covid-19!), take it up a notch by playing “restaurant” at home with your child. This strategy helps your child actively engage in the food experience. Your child can take your orders, pour your drinks, serve your food, and clear the dishes. Then, swap roles! You can play wait staff and treat your little one like she’s dining out. Maybe she’ll even try some foods that they wouldn’t within an everyday mealtime experience.
Practice Thanksgiving Gratitude
Transitioning a fussy eater to an adventurous one won’t happen overnight. Give thanks for the baby steps! Celebrate favorite fall foods in ways that work for your family.
With patience, time, and effort, your child will find some of her own favorites to enjoy with you.