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11 ways to help your child overcome picky eating + develop healthy habits

8. Remove the words “eat it” or “try some” from your dinner vocabulary

11 ways to help your child overcome picky eating + develop healthy habits

I have been a health nut for years, so when I had my first child, the responsibility of sustaining another human being's life was somewhat overwhelming. However, I remember feeling confident that with my knowledge about health, my OT background, and my love for cooking, it would all come together.


I was going to have the "best-eating-child-known-to-man." (Cue the first time parent over-confidence chuckle.)

Truth be told, I did, initially. My son would eat anything I put in front of him. My sister would laugh when we were at the playground and he would sit down for his snack of salmon and sweet potatoes when all the other kids were eating Oreos. (Okay, I went a little overboard, don't judge me!)

Then my son turned three and refused to eat anything that resembled a vegetable. The more I pushed a certain food, the more he rejected it, and it drove me bonkers.

It has been quite the learning process trying to figure out what works and what doesn't in terms of helping my kids enjoy healthy foods while still respecting their need for autonomy.

I'm sure every mother goes through a bit of a roller-coaster of emotions when it comes to food, especially with the first-born.

I'm happy to say I think I've finally found a good balance of letting go of control and encouraging healthy eating habits through fun and education, not coercion. I can now enjoy mealtime with my family, instead of dreading our nightly food battles.

For the record, I, by no means, have children who eat every vegetable offered to them. In fact, no matter how many times I have cooked broccoli, I know, deep down, both kids wouldn't care if I never cooked it again.

There are, however, a few things that give me peace regarding food:

  • I know (and my kids know) that I am in control of choosing meals, not them.
  • I know I do my best to provide healthy options.
  • My kids know that if they don't eat what is offered at mealtime, they will have to wait until the next meal or snack.
  • I know they will accept new and/or healthy foods on their own terms and this is their own right as an individual who has different preferences than me.

I recently took a wonderful feeding course entitled AEIOU, an Integrative Approach to Pediatric Feeding by Nina Ayd Johanson. I learned so much from this course and it really helped me connect all the dots with my own kids at home and in my OT practice.

After delving a little more deeply into training in the pediatric feeding department, I came to an eye-opening conclusion regarding my son’s eating situation. I realized I had, unknowingly, created an environment of stress in regards to eating/mealtime for my son. The more I worried about what my son ate, the more he refused the foods I presented.

It wasn't until I decided it was time to finally let go of control and be intentional about creating an atmosphere of joy around the dinner table, that my son started eating well again.

I would LOVE to help you ditch the nightly food battles in exchange for a peaceful mealtime routine with your family too! So that is why I decided to put together every facet of information I have learned over the years in my OT practice about how to overcome picky eating.

First, consider that there is a huge difference between typical picky eating behaviors that develop around the age of 2-3 years old and a legitimate eating disorder that severely impacts nutritional intake and requires extensive therapy. I am speaking solely about typical picky eating patterns today.

Find peace just in the fact that picky eating is a normal phase that toddlers go through. A nurturing and accepting caregiver is the key to helping them pass through this phase so that it doesn't snowball into a bigger problem. If what you're currently doing just isn't working, accept the fact that you need to try something new.

So without further ado, here are my top tips to help kids overcome picky eating + enjoy a wider variety of foods:

1. Sit down and have a meal together as a family every weeknight (if possible)

Sitting down with your kids and eating with them as a family as frequently as you can is the most important and often most overlooked contributing factor to overcoming picky eating.

There are hundreds of studies proving the positive correlation between regular family dinners and increased vocabulary, academic performance and even the increased consumption of fruits, vegetables and micronutrients in children.

Since kids learn best through modeled behavior, they need to watch you eat and enjoy different foods to learn how to do the same. Through modeling, they learn how to chew and eat different food types and textures and how to use utensils.

A meal together implies everyone has the same meal, no short order chef action. Kids eat the same, healthy and balanced meal as their parents. It’s best to have a sense of shared control over mealtime, meaning some nights you cook adult favorites and other nights you ask for a little input from the kids on what they would like. This way, they know, while you’re in charge of what’s for dinner, they can have a say in it too.

2. Make a mealtime schedule + stick to it

Set designated times for meals and snacks and stick to the plan. This helps regulate kids' appetites and sets a peaceful rhythm in the home around meals.

Kids like to know what to expect.

Be sure to set a time when mealtime is over and the food is gone. This does wonders for kids who take hours on end to eat one serving of peas. Set a timer if you have to (it can be visible to you or both you and the kids) and let them know when the meal will end, the food will also end but don’t hold it over them, just state it as a fact.

A good time for a meal is anywhere from 20-30 minutes. There is no reason a meal should last for hours on end (I have been there!). In many social situations (think school, etc) mealtimes are usually around this amount of time.

3. Exposure to a wide variety of foods is key

Exposure to a large variety of food tastes and textures is crucial for future food acceptance, especially within the first year of life. Think of it this way; if your goal is to have your child eat more foods and be okay with trying new ones, how else do you expect them to get there without providing opportunities to try, see and learn about a larger variety of foods?

Every day, try to expose them to a new food type, vegetable or texture.

For textures, think finely chopped, fork mashed, soft table foods, meltable solids (crackers), crispy foods, mixed textures (more than one food texture mixed together), difficulty chewy foods.

Remember mixed textures (like lasagna or tacos) are overwhelming (this is why toddlers can find an onion in any food imaginable) Try deconstructing these types of meals.

For flavors, think spicy, sweet, bland, savory, sour, creamy, etc.spices too

To increase acceptance of more foods, you need to consider ALL sensory components of foods presented.

First, think of sight, does the food look presentable? If not, how can you make it visually more appealing? (i.e. cheese atop taco meat, noodles atop of soup)

Then think of the touch/tactile component, does the food have a new texture and is your child okay with touching it? If they won't even touch and explore it with their hands, they probably won't put it in their mouth.

Next, think of the smell, does it smell appetizing? Don't be afraid of the spice! Kids can have fun exploring with their sense of smell just by opening up the spice cabinet. The olfactory system (smell) is strongly linked to gustation (taste). This means if a child enjoys the way something smells, they are more likely to try a bite. Hold their hand in this process by helping them determine their scent preferences.

Finally, if your child has accepted all the other food sensory components up to this point, they are now more likely to be ready to taste it!

It can take around 15 trials of a new food for a toddler to accept it. Most parents assume their child doesn’t like a certain food because they rejected it the first or second time and subsequently don't present that food to their child again. Instead, keep presenting the food and wait patiently for when they’re ready to accept it.

Remember, even if your child doesn’t actually try a bite or the food presented, just interacting with it (by sight, touch, or smell) is still increasing their exposure to the food type. Maybe a few more exposures and they might take a bite!

4. Create an atmosphere of joy around the table

Be deliberate about making mealtime a fun and positive experience. Mealtime can be stressful and overwhelming for some children, especially when they spy something completely new on their plate.

Feeling overwhelmed or stressed when you sit down to eat? Take a deep breath and smile! Then just enjoy your kids and your meal. Take this time to connect and talk to your family. It will help everyone feel more relaxed and calm and maybe mealtime will even be something to look forward to with your child!

Remember to turn off all electronics so you can make eye contact with each other and focus on conversation as a family.

Here are some fun and playful mealtime icebreakers!

  • Painting with purees: Grab some baby foods and let kids paint with them on any surface (high chair topper, paper plates, etc) This will increase their tolerance to mushy textures and they might try a few bites and expose themselves to new vegetable tastes.
  • Talking about the colors on the plate: "It's important to eat ALL the colors of the rainbow to make our bodies strong. What colors of the rainbow are on our plate today?"
  • Asking: On a scale of 0-10 how everyone’s day was (take turns)
  • Food math + counting: “How many carrots are on your plate?” “Who has the most peas?”
  • Using a dip tray: Dips are great for encouraging vegetable consumption and they are a fun, modeled behavior you can do as a family. (Dip crackers or apple slices into peanut/almond butter, dip carrots into ranch, celery into hummus)
  • Use training chopsticks for kids
  • Use bento forks for trying new foods
  • Singing a silly song or saying a short blessing together as a family. This is simple and easy fun, and kids really enjoy taking part. Here is the one my son says at school and we also uses at home, it's so cute! "Thank you for the world so sweet, thank you for the food we eat, thank you for the birds that sing, thank you Lord for EVERYTHING!"
  • My personal favorite is truthfully teaching them about the food that they are eating. Tell them where it comes from and what it does for the body (I.e. “Carrots make your eyes super strong, Salmon comes from a fish in the sea and it makes your brain grow, etc”)

5. Describe whats on the plate: texture + color + size + flavor + size + temperature

Food descriptors can work wonders for kids who have difficulty trying new foods. Instead of thinking “She doesn’t like sweet potatoes,” think of how she may just be nervous to try it because she doesn’t know what to expect.

Children like things to be predictable and often the unknown becomes scary and can cause anxiety. Maybe the last time she tried sweet potatoes, it surprised her how smushy they were.

Instead of, “These are so yummy!” Be more descriptive. You can say, “These sweet potatoes are orange like the sun! Did you know you don’t have to chew them very much because they are so mushy? Watch how I eat them. Oh, I can taste the butter too!” Or instead of “I love carrots!” say, “This carrot is so crunchy! Watch how I make a super loud crunchy sound when I eat it!”

6. Get your kids involved in cooking + meal prep

Being involved in the cooking and food preparation helps to prepare them for the meal to come and eliminate the element of surprise. They can be the ones to help you chop and mix the bananas into their yogurt instead of being surprised at the chunk in their mouth when they were expecting a smooth texture

Cooking with kids can be challenging, but it also can be a lot of fun. They feel more in control which is so important (remember the idea of shared control). They are also more willing to try new things if they helped assemble it. My son tried hemp hearts (aka sprinkles) on his peanut butter toast because he helped me sprinkle them on.

Letting them get their hands on the foods prior to eating them will increase their chances of putting it in their mouth also because now they have experienced the texture of that food.

So take a deep breath, embrace the mishaps and the mess and try to break everything down into very simple steps.

7. Offer three or four choices + always include one safe choice

Anywhere from 3-4 choices is the perfect combination of allowing room for exploration of new foods and textures and allowing more choices to help balance the meal, regardless of the choices your child chooses to eat.

Having a safe choice or preferred food on the plate can help to alleviate tension over new foods and help your child feel safe and excited about mealtime. Think of it as “bait on the plate.” If you made a vegetable soup, maybe you sprinkle a few favorite noodles on top so visually that’s the first thing they see.

Another type of food bait, especially for vegetables, can be spreads, sauces or dips. I personally don’t like eating a dry sweet potato so I don’t expect my kids to either. Veggies roasted in olive oil, butter atop of potatoes, cream cheese atop of cucumbers or a side of dipping ranch with carrots are perfect examples.

8. Remove the words "eat it" or "try some" from your dinner vocabulary

Children instinctively resist persuasion and reducing coercion will help reduce the child's anxiety.

I’m sure you can recall an event where you tried to make your child eat something and the more you tried to “pitch” or “sell” the food, the more they resisted. My son refused to eat pizza for about three years because of this and then finally decided on his own terms to try it.

So offer the foods, enjoy your plate, and move on, mama!

9. Have a safe bowl handy

Make trying new foods safe and give them an out if they don’t like it. Children are more willing to try something if they know they can spit it out. Using a bowl next to their plate where they can choose to remove items they tried and don't like is helpful because it gives them some control over the situation

Here is how to use one.

Simply keep a small plate or bowl next to your child's dinner plate. Encourage by example when trying a new food and if they touch it and don't like how it feels or taste it and don't like how it tastes, they can spit it out or place it on the safe bowl.

10. Allow total autonomy (but offer help if they need or request)

Being an occupational therapist, my goal is to teach children skills for successful independence, so I have my own personal qualms with spoon feeding. Again, we are back to the control issue. Children (and all humans really) like to feel in control, especially when it comes to things that are coming directly into their mouths.

There are, however, certain types of foods that require a little more help. Or sometimes your toddler or baby simply wants or requests help, and that’s okay too. But for the most part, allow your child to feed themselves so they can feel in control of the eating experience.

So, let yourself off the hook for this one (except the mess, unfortunately) and let your child explore textures and food tastes on their own. They might even develop some new utensil skills along the way.

11. Accept where your child is on this journey to food acceptance + move on

This is by far the hardest for most parents, myself included.

Do your best to accept your child for where they are along their journey to enjoy a wider variety of foods. You cannot force them to be anywhere along this journey that they are not. Fortunately, though, you can be the single most important contributing factor to helping them move forward on this journey of food enjoyment and exploration.

So that's it, mamas! My hope for you is that using these silly simple steps, you can start enjoying mealtime with your children again (and hopefully your kids will learn to eat new and healthy foods along the way too!)

Originally posted on Helping Hands Occupational Therapy.

As much as I love fall, it always feels like the season when my family's routine gets kicked into overdrive. With our oldest in (homeschool) kindergarten, my youngest on the brink of entering her twos, work, housework and *all the things* filling my day, it's hard not to feel a little overwhelmed sometimes. Did I mention we're still in a pandemic? (Yeah, it's a lot.) And while I try to take a positive view as much as I can, now more than ever I definitely jump at the chance to take anything off my busy plate.

One thing first in line at the chopping block? Cooking. To be fair, I like cooking. I cooked most of our meals long before I had ever even heard of social distancing. But there's something about the pandemic that suddenly made cooking every single meal feel exponentially more draining.

Enter Daily Harvest. They deliver nourishing, delicious food right to your door. Daily Harvest's mix of smoothies, bowls, flatbreads, snacks and more provide a balanced, whole food options that are as satisfying as they are nutritious. But my favorite part? When we're ready to eat, I simply pull the food from the freezer and it's ready in minutes—without any chopping, measuring or searching for a recipe. Even better, they're incredibly tasty, meaning I'm not struggling to get my girls to dig in. Not cooking has never felt so good.

Here are my 8 favorite products that are helping to lighten my load right now:

Mulberry + Dragonfruit Oat Bowl

Mulberry + Dragonfruit Oat Bowl

One thing that actually helps break up the monotony of quarantine? Trying and introducing new ingredients to my family. I love this overnight oat bowl (add milk the night before and let it set in your fridge overnight—easy-peasy!) because not only does it not compromise on nutrition, but it also helps me bring new whole fruits, vegetables and superfoods to the table with ease.

Mint + Cacao Smoothie

Mint + Cacao Smoothie

I kid you not, these taste exactly like a mint chocolate chip milkshake. (Just ask my 4-year-old, who is constantly stealing sips from my glass.) What she doesn't know? She's actually getting organic banana, spinach and chlorella with every sip. #momwin

Kabocha + Sage Flatbread

Kabocha + Sage Flatbread

Our family's eating habits have been leaning more plant-forward this year, which often means a lot of veggie washing, peeling and chopping every time I cook. That's why these flatbreads are my new best friend come lunchtime. This Kabocha + Sage Flatbread is made with a gluten-free cauliflower crust topped with kabocha squash, fennel and sage for a taste of fall in every bite. (Missing the cheese? You can add it before baking for more of a pizza feel.)

Kale + Sweet Potato Flatbread

Kale + Sweet Potato Flatbread

There's something about the combination of sweet potato crust topped with red cabbage, organic greens and an herby-cilantro sauce that is so delicious… like surprisingly delicious. I polished off this bad boy in seconds! And unlike other "veggie" crusts I've tried, these are actually clean (AKA no fillers, preservations, partially-hydrogenated oil or artificial anything). Plus, it couldn't be easier to throw in the oven between conference calls and homeschool lessons.

Cacao + Avocado Smoothie

Cacao + Avocado Smoothie

Any time I get to serve a breakfast that tastes like chocolate, it's a good day. (That goes double when it's *my* breakfast.) This rich, chocolatey smoothie is packed with organic zucchini, avocado, pumpkin seeds and pea protein for a nourishing mix of healthy fats and muscle-building protein so I can carry that baby all day long. And did I mention the chocolate?

Vanilla Bean + Apple Chia Bowl

Vanilla Bean + Apple Chia Bowl

Maybe it's just me, but after a long week of cooking, the last thing I want to do on Saturday morning is...wake up and cook. That's why these one-step breakfasts are saving my weekend. I simply add our favorite milk the night before and store the bowl in the fridge overnight. Come morning, I have a nutritious chia bowl that powers me through even the busiest day of errands. It's also Instagram-ready, which makes me feel like I'm out brunching (even if I can't remember the last time I was in a restaurant).

Cacao Nib + Vanilla Bites

Cacao Nib + Vanilla Bites

My kids have turned into snack monsters during quarantine, and I'm often struggling to find a wholesome option (that doesn't require a lot of extra cooking or else I resort to something ultra-refined and shelf-stable). These bites are the hero I never knew I needed. For one, they taste like cookie dough, but they're actually packed with chickpeas, pumpkin, dates and flax seed (among other whole ingredients). But unlike actual cookie dough, I don't have to go anywhere near my mixer to whip them up—all I have to do is pull the container out of the freezer, let them defrost a bit and we can all enjoy a treat.

Cauliflower Rice + Pesto Harvest Bowl

Cauliflower Rice + Pesto Harvest Bowl

Sometimes I have a little more time to cook, but I still want a quick, stress-free solution. (Especially because it always feels like I just cleaned up from the last meal.) I love these Harvest Bowls because they warm up in under five minutes on the stove top (or microwave!) but pack tons of flavor. The Cauliflower Rice + Pesto bowl is one of my favorites, with basil, olive oil and nutritional yeast for a hearty dish reminiscent of a mouth-watering Italian meal. When I'm feeling extra fancy, I add leftover grilled chicken or a fried egg.

Strawberry + Rich, Rippled Berry Compote Scoops

Strawberry + Rich, Rippled Berry Compote Scoops

Who doesn't want to end the day with a little something sweet? This creamy and decadent frozen treat from Daily Harvest is swirled with sweet berries and tropical dragonfruit for an antioxidant burst you'll feel good about—but that your kiddos will just think is ice cream. Go ahead, take credit for being the best mom ever.

Want to try it yourself? You can get $25 off your first box of Daily Harvest with code MOTHERLY.

This article was sponsored by Daily Harvest. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas

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With Labor day weekend in the rearview and back-to-school in full swing, most parents are fresh out of boxes to check on their "Fun Concierge" hit list. It's also the point of diminishing returns on investing in summer-only toys. So with that in mind, we've rounded up some of our favorite toys that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play. Even better, they're Montessori-friendly and largely open-ended so your kids can get a ton of use out of them.

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Water play set

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$100

Croquet set

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Wooden bulldozer toy

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Pull-along hippo

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Baby forest fox ride-on

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