Well, it’s that time again. Dinner time that is. You’ve spent your time cooking a nice meal for your family, all the while, breaking up fights and dealing with kids that only want to be picked up and held while you are in the kitchen. You finally sit down to enjoy your meal and you look over to see that your kids are staring at their food. They won’t even touch it and you see that look in their eye. It’s the same look you get almost every night. They hate what you’ve made.
I’m sure my family isn’t the only one in this boat, right? I thought -this- was bad enough. Boy was I wrong! When my 5th son was old enough to start trying solids, he would gag every time we attempted it. I would stop and try again a couple of weeks later, and it all ended up with the same results. I eventually regressed and tried feeding him his milk from a spoon, and he gagged on that as well. I knew then that this was going to take time to overcome.
I am not an expert, but these are the lessons I learned through the process. I hope it can help other parents in the same situation.
Helping Children with Texture Issues and with Picky Eating
The main thing to remember through this, is that things won’t change over night. To be successful, it will take a series of baby steps. I tried skipping the baby steps and it never works. It is a night of tears and frustration, and you are back to square one the next day, and then you repeat it all over again. It is important to observe for a while. See if there is a pattern in your child’s behavior when it comes to eating. Are they more open for certain foods at a particular time of the day? Do they avoid a similar texture, color, smell? Will they eat those foods in different forms? (For instance a Banana, freshly pealed, vs blended in a smoothie) What are your concerns with them avoiding the food?
Quinn took months to get used to smooth food. He gagged constantly, but we kept trying every day, so he would get used to it. By the time he was a year old, he still couldn’t eat a single cheerio. I had to buy a food processor and puree all our dinners so he had something to eat. as time went on, I stopped the food processor early and left a little chunk with it. By the time he was 18 months old, he could finally eat a cheerio without gagging. As time went on (and you can tell how slow of a process this was) his aversion isolated to mostly Fruits and Vegetables. I had to make smoothies in order for him to get anything in him. I eventually got him signed up for food therapy. This is where I learned the baby steps. It changed my way of thinking and we came at it in a different direction. I hope this can help other people as well. Although Quinn is severe, this can help with mild issues as well.
Baby Step #1 Being in the Same Room with the Food
The first step is having your child okay with being in the same room as the food they don’t like. We never had this issue. If this is an issue, I would give them warning before pulling it out of the cupboard or the fridge. Then describe the appearance of the food. This will help take the fear notch down.
Baby Step #2 Having the Food on their Plate
This was an issue with us some of the time. I told them they didn’t have to eat it, they just had to keep it on their plate. We are taking baby steps here, so if they have major issues, we want them to work through them, instead of them feeling forced into eating it. If you make something, always serve it. They won’t eat it at first, and might cry to have it there, but this will introduce the food in a less threatening way. Once they are fine about anything being on their plate, then they get to move to the next step.
Baby Step #3 Touching the Food with a Finger
I was blown away at how scary this was to my son. Who would have thought touching a Strawberry could be so frightening? He was used to having it on his plate, but asking him to touch his food was a big deal for several months. We described the food in detail. We commented on the shape and the color and the feel (before he touched it). Describing it helped him know what to expect. We reminded him he didn’t have to eat it, just touch it. I know it sounds crazy to go at such a slow pace (JUST EAT THE DANG FOOD!) but we had years of difficult meals prior to this and nothing ever worked on helping him overcome it. We were at our wits end. That is why we started taking the baby steps.
Baby Step #4 Picking up the Food
I require each step before they can get down from the table. If they are on this step, then they have to pick it up once before they can get down. Maybe you have dessert after dinner, if so, then they have to complete the step they are on, before they can get it. Yes, this was met with tears at first. Explain how it feels before they touch it so they know what to expect. This might backfire if it is slimy, Only do this step for things like apples, carrots, or anything else that you would typically pick up.
Baby Step #4 Smelling the Food
They are finally used to touching it and picking it up, now it is time to move on to the next step. I didn’t anticipate this being hard either, but it was hard for Quinn as well. We would describe the appearance and the smell as best as we could. He would touch it, and then I would smell it, and then we would put it up for him to smell it. He didn’t want to put it up to his nose, on his own, at first. They might not be sniffing in, but if they are picking it up on their own and putting it up to their nose, Success!
Baby Step #5 Licking the Food
They can either use their hands, or they can use utensils. I had better luck with a fork on this step. They will do a lot of smelling steps before they will open that mouth. Again, describing the taste and texture helps them. If it is a peach I would say “It tastes sweet and a little stringy. It is soft and very juicy. Mmmmm” Then I eat my bite. Keep at it!
Baby Step #6 Putting the Food in their Mouth and then Spitting it back out
This takes convincing. I have them lick quite a bit before they feel safe to put it in. I tell them they can spit it right back out. If they regress and won’t lick, you have them smell till they feel safe enough to lick again. We cheer and clap a lot through each baby step. You want them to feel good at the progress they are making. Describe the taste and texture to them! It also helped to have a cup of water. That was his way of taking a break and putting something safe in his mouth. Plus, if he didn’t like the taste, it would wash it down.
Baby Step #7 Put the food in and take one bite, then spit it out
Make sure to relish in each success, no matter how small. If your child is like Quinn, the fact that he just popped an apple in his mouth on his own is HUGE! Sure he spit it right back out and maybe gagged a little, but really, it took so long to just get to that one point! And if you don’t have these problems, maybe you will appreciate your dinner time a little more. It helped me with my other kids for sure. I was more patient with them and their pickiness. After all, I am a recovering picky eater myself. You will gradually increase the amount of bites as they get used to this step. Think of it as Baby Step #7a, #7b, #7c, ect. Just to clarify, My son was eating other food pretty good. I pushed this because I think eating Vegetables and Fruit is pretty important. He was not eating ANY fruits or Vegetables. If he only had an aversion to a few of them, I might not have bothered with it. You can tell he had issues since he first started eating solids, and each thing took time to get him used to it. Since we started the food therapy, I tried this with my other kids, who were typical but were picky. This helped them as well. Your child doesn’t have to be severe in order to benefit from this.
Baby Step #8 Swallow
After getting them to take so many bites, the swallow will eventually happen. WOO! Cheer and clap! It is finally paying off! Some other ideas, are to offer several foods that they DO like on their plate. They will always have a choice of something they like, but you only give them a small amount. When they are done and they want more, that’s when you get to try with the food they don’t like. Let them choose whether it is on a spoon or fork. When they first start, you can hold the silverware for them, but you want them to eventually take over so they are feeding themselves. I like to get out 2 forks and put a minuscule amount on one and an overwhelmingly large piece on the other fork and then let them choose which piece they want to eat. That always makes them feel better about the bite they are getting. I might sound like a broken record, but you really want to describe the food, even if they have seen it 100 times. If they are having a hard time, describe the way it feels and tastes in a positive way and model the behavior for them. These methods take some convincing, so kids that are young and can’t be negotiated with would remain at an earlier stage until they understand and want to do this. You don’t want to force it, or it will backfire.
Make meal times fun. Talk and laugh, and engage them as you interact as a family. Experiment and play around with what works and what doesn’t. Just have your end goal in sight. It’s not so much about getting them to take a bite while feeling frustrated the whole time, but HELPING them enjoy it. It will pay off in the long run!