7 Tips for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters

By: Jessica Drake-Simmons, M.S. CCC-SLP

Eating can be a daily struggle and constant stressor for many families. The eating battles can be a point of looming contention at any given moment in a day.

It is important to keep the ultimate objective in the forefronts of our minds when it comes to feeding our little friends. Our goal is not to get kids to swallow vegetables through teary eyes during dinner tonight. Our goal is to develop children who like a variety of healthy food. We want to raise children who will grow up enjoying nutritious foods, not just viewing them as an obligation.

Photo by Nancy Kerner
Photo by Nancy Kerner

There are not quick fixes to turning a selective eater into an adventurous eater overnight. However, with consistent implementation of the following strategies, you will be on your way there!

  1. Encourage Food Exploration! Join your child in exploring new or non-preferred foods and make it fun! This may help decrease anxiety caused by new foods. We experience food through our eyes, nose, mouth, and skin prior to tasting a food. Having a hesitant eater experience the temperature and texture of foods smushed between their fingers can be a beneficial step before expecting the child to smush that food between their teeth. Expose your children to foods by letting them touch, smell, kiss, lick and bite the presented foods. Let your child PLAY with their food! Don’t worry about the mess! Food should be a joyful experience. Talk about the food and describe what it looks like how it feels, how it smells and how it tastes. Let your child help you prepare meals. The Kitchn provides ideas for the many simple steps in cooking that even young children can help with!  Learn about food!  Plant a garden.  Visit the farmers market and the grocery store.
  2. Make the meal time about being together as a family. Meal time should be a pleasurable experience for everyone and an opportunity to spend quality time with the family. If a child is a part of a joyful low-stress meal experience, he will be more likely to independently consume more of the presented foods.
  3. Be positive and supportive but… Beware of rewarding your child by paying a great deal of attention to what the child is NOT doing. When we constantly cheer for our children, we can be reinforcing the pursed lips that are rejecting the airplane spoon. Rather, make a single statement about the action you would like to see occur (e.g.. “Maybe you would like to try giving your apple slice a kiss?” “It would be awesome to see you knock the corn kernels on your teeth!”) and praise the desired behavior after it occurs. Pay little or no attention to the negative behaviors.
  4. Don’t force a child to eat! Policing a selective eater’s food consumption fosters negative feelings with the nutritious foods we want them to eat! We want positive and happy feelings associated with meals in order to support healthy eating habits! Letting children be in control of the foods you provide helps them feel calm and promotes a positive experience with the foods. It also allows them to learn to listen to their bodies and be in control of nutritious choices.
  5. Offer small portions. If someone put a plate of eel in front of me and told me that this was dinner and I had to eat it or else… AHHH!! No way! I would probably gag at the site. But, if I was encouraged to try just one tiny bite? Well, I could probably do that. Putting a small portion of a new food on your child’s plate will present an obtainable expectation. It may even provide the child with an opportunity to request more!
  6. Rotate and repeat! Regardless of whether your child liked the food, repeating the food will build familiarity. Repeated positive exposures to a food can be essential in learning to eat the food. Don’t think of uneaten food as wasted. A small portion of uneaten food on a plate is a valuable learning experience for a hesitant eater.
  7. Pair foods together. Present dips and spreads like hummus, peanut butter, ketchup or salad dressing to make non-preferred foods more pleasurable. Pair mealtime favorites like chicken nuggets with a small serving of a new vegetable.

Selective eating can stem from GI issues, food allergies or food intolerance and therefore will require medical attention. If your child is particularly resistant or consumes a limited diet, don’t hesitate to seek guidance from an occupational therapist or speech-language pathologist.

Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley offers a feeding clinic which provides an interdisciplinary team consisting of a gastroenterologist, speech-language pathologist, registered dietitian and parent liaison to assess and provide recommendations related to feeding challenges. Contact our Intake Coordinator at 630.261.6287 to ask questions or schedule an appointment.

Here are some great resources to make happy and healthy eating obtainable in your home:speech pinterest

For more information about Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley please visit EasterSealsDFVR.org.

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