Strategies for Successful Family Mealtimes
by Christy Beauchamp, CCC-SLP
Kids Place West Speech and Feeding Therapist

Family meal times are a time to join together to sit and enjoy a variety of foods and conversations. But for families of picky eaters, family dinners can instead be stressful and even chaotic. Stress and anxiety overwhelm the table because no matter what is presented, your picky eater struggles to eat and dinner time turns into a fight. In the book, “Helping your Child with Extreme Picky Eating,” the author lays out many tips to help your picky eater.

There are a number of reasons why children choose not to eat certain foods. One reason is due to sensory processing. Sensory processing refers to how the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into responses. How a food appeals to the senses (vision, taste, touch, smell) can determine whether or not the child will want to interact and eventually consume the food.

For example, some children do not like messy foods; they will only eat foods that can easily be consumed with little to no mess (i.e. chips, chicken nuggets, French fries). Slimy or wet foods such as fruits and vegetables may not be eaten because of how they appeal to the child’s senses.

Underdeveloped chewing skills may also make it difficult for a child to consume a variety of foods such as vegetables and meats. Without the necessary skills to bite, tear and chew the food easily, a child will quickly learn that this particular food is difficult and choose not to eat it.

Your child’s appetite may also affect their willingness to eat a variety of foods. When a child is allowed to “graze” or snack throughout the day, they will most likely not be hungry at meal times. It is equally important to know whether or not the child is having regular bowel movements. Constipation may also affect a child’s appetite.

Whatever the reason, it is important to identify foods that your child can and will eat. Once you have identified those foods, slowly work towards increasing their food repertoire by providing them plenty of opportunity to interact with non-preferred foods without the expectation or pressure to eat. It is important to know that your child must trust that you will not force them to interact or eat a non-preferred food.

Below is a list of ways to help your child expand their food repertoire and make mealtime more enjoyable:

  • Have scheduled meal times and limit distractions.
  • Allow your child to help prepare the meal without the expectations of consuming the non-preferred items during the meal.
  • Always provide at least two preferred food items during meal time.
  • Serve family style meals, allowing your child the opportunity to make their own plate (may require assistance).
  • Limit the number of snacks throughout the day.
  • While at the grocery store, allow your child to pick out new foods they would be willing to try.
  • Offer foods to your child that you eat (do not offer Brussels sprouts if you don’t eat them).
  • During non-meal times, build sensory skills through non-food sensory play (i.e fill a bucket with beans and hid a variety of small toys that your child can hunt for, paint with pudding or cool whip, use a variety of vegetables to paint with).
  • Allow your child the opportunity to choose a meal  .
  • Consider your child’s skills, if they have poor chewing skills they may select foods that are easier to chew such as cereal bars, macaroni and cheese, French fries and chicken nuggets. If you feel your child is having difficulty chewing consider the use of a chewing aid such as a NUK brush or chewing tube.

Remember, as a parent, your part in the feeding relationship includes how and when food is offered, the atmosphere you create around meal times, the expectations you hold and the words you say to your child. If you feel that your child is struggling with eating a healthy variety of foods, seek out a good feeding therapist that can provide a program to assist your child with developing healthy eating habits.

Resource: “Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating” By, Katharine Rowell, MD and Jenny McGlothlin, MS, SLP