Friday, July 16, 2010

Expanding Food Choices of Toddlers

My 25 month old son used to eat "everything under the sun", but over the last three or four months he has been a bit pickier about his food choices. At times, he refuses foods he typically likes. Unfortunately, this is part of being a toddler and exerting his independence. Since I know that, I still offer the food but I don't create a power struggle. If he tries to throw the food, I just tell him to keep the food on his plate. Looking at it on his plate reminds him that the food still exists. Typically, he will eat that food a different time, so at least he still eats it sometimes. Now, if I weren't an occupational therapist who works with toddlers I might approach the situation differently, especially since I came from a home where we were told to eat everything on the plate or we couldn't get dessert and/or couldn't get up from the table until the plate was clean!

One thing that seems to work on introducing new foods to my son is having him sit at the table next to his older sister and watch her eat. Thank goodness she isn't a picky eater! Until this week, my son wouldn't eat green beans (BTW I don't like them either). But my daughter LOVES them, so I cook them at least a once every 7-10 days. Over the last couple of months, he went from saying "no beans" to allowing them to sit on his plate without saying anything; then he progressed to touching them and bringing them to his lips. Well, on Monday night I cooked green beans and he ate two of them willingly as he watched his sister eat them...yeah! Then, the next evening I heated up some left overs and not only did he eat the 5 beans I gave him, he asked for more of them without being prompted...yeah, again!

I think toddlers learn from older children whether it be a sibling, cousin, neighbor, or another child at a babysitter's home or a daycare. So consider pairing up the picky toddler with the not-so-picky eater who is older during snacks and meals. Even if it doesn't help right away, the child is looking at the food. Research shows that parents and caregivers give up to easily on getting a child to eat a particular food, and that on average it takes 10-15 presenations of that food before the child will like it. Now, if you force the child to eat it, I can almost guarantee it will take even longer! Toddlers like things to be their idea not yours, and repeated offerings of a particular food increases the chance that one day that toddler will choose to eat it. I do think there comes a point where you may have to conclude that the child just doesn't like that food for whatever reason: color, smell, shape, taste, texture, etc. After all, I don't like every food on the planet either!

Other ideas to expand the food choices of toddlers include:

- Don't get in the rut of fixing the same meals over and over. Not that it isn't okay to repeat some of the same meals, but introduce new foods as often as possible. This may take planning ahead so that you have new foods in the pantry and refrigerator. Even mixing meals up helps somewhat, for example: sometimes corn is served with chicken and carrots, and other times it is served with turkey and rice. This helps reduce the rigidity that some toddlers tend to exhibit.

- When offering new foods, try a food that is similar to a food the child already likes. For example, if the child loves Gala apples, then try different types of apples such as Macintosh, Fuji, and Golden Delicious. Also, pears have a similar taste to apples too. Another example might include that if the child likes plain apple sauce, then try cinnamon apple sauce or peach apple sauce; the taste may differ slightly but the texture will be the same.

- Be creative and fun with snacks and meals. Using cookie cutters to cut sandwiches into child-friendly shapes worked like a charm for getting my daughter to eat a turkey sandwich for the first time back when she was a toddler. After doing this for 4-5 times I just presented her with a plain sandwich, no special shapes, and she ate it just as quickly as if it had been in the shape of a heart. Other ideas might include drawing smiley faces out of ketchup onto a piece of meat and putting food onto a plate with the child's favorite character on it.

-Make sure every meal has at least one food that the child likes and don't force him to eat the others, just encourage it. At the very least, the child needs to look at it and smell it. Now, if the the child has an autism spectrum disorder or sensory processing disorder, then just being in the same room as that smell may be all they can handle at first, but the ultimate goal is getting that food on the child's plate so that one day he may actually eat it and like it.

- Have the child help cook the meal. When I make home-made pizza both of my kids help. My son obviously can't help as much, but he rolls out the dough with the rolling pin whereas my daughter can spread the sauce. I leave the oven light on as it is cooking for them to peek at here and there, and both kids are super excited about eating the meal by the time it comes out of the oven.

-Encourage the child to eat healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables as opposed to fried fast food. This means be a living example, because "monkey see, monkey do"; so if the rest of the family eats junk food and is picky with vegetables, then the toddler won't be any different unless the other familly members change their habits. This lifestyle also sets the child up to be at risk for obesity and diabetes. Type 2 diabetes in children is on the rise, and it could be prevented by healthier lifestyle and food choices; on the other hand, type 1 diabetes is acquired in childhood (usually) and isn't due to being over-weight.

- If your child has feeding difficulties due to sensory or motor problems, then consult with an occupational therapist or speech pathologist who specializes in feeding. Not all therapists are experts in feeding, so shop around until you find a good fit!

- Read the book "Food Chaining" which is written by feeding specialists and gives great ideas on how to introduce new foods slowly. If the child is just a picky eater with no oral aversions or oral-motor problems, then suggestions from this book alone may help. If there is something more going on, then direct therapy intervention should be considered.

Wow, all of this talk about eating has made me hungry for a to go!

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