As a pediatric occupational therapist, I understand more than anyone that the term picky eater can mean two, totally different things to two different moms.
There are children with legitimate feeding disorders that severely restricts food intake by mouth, and then there are children who fall into the typical picky toddler phase, somewhere around the age of 2-3 years old.
Because this is a normal phase, I know there are plenty of moms and dads out there who struggle everyday just trying to get a nutritious meal into their toddler.
I know, because I have been there too.
The food struggles, the coercion, the counting of the bites, the advice from your pediatrician that resounds in your head about how your toddler should be eating “five servings of vegetables a day" when you're just asking/begging them to eat one measly serving.
It is overwhelming. It is confusing. It is sometimes infuriating.
Thankfully, I finally feel a sense of peace over mealtime in our house and my kids have come a long way too. No, they don't eat everything that is put before them, and that's okay with me. Because they have their own mind and own preferences and I know I am doing my job to present them with healthy choices.
Here are some easy ways to help your child learn to love food:
1. Give them experiences early on
Lack of exposure to different tastes and textures within the first year of life can cause picky eating habits. Children only need to be fed pureed foods for a few weeks (if at all). If a child is fed pureed foods or bland rice cereal for too long, this might cause them to reject other food textures and anything with flavor.
During the first year of life, exposure to a large variety of food tastes and textures is crucial for future food acceptance. 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.
For flavors, think spicy, sweet, bland, savory, sour, creamy, etc.
By being exposed to a wide variety of textures within the first year of life, the 1-year-old will also have built the motor components necessary for chewing.
2. Consider the sensory component of food
Even as grown adults, we are aware of the sensory component of different foods. Some children (and some adults) have a harder time accepting certain textures. I know a few adults who still can't handle the feeling of squishing a cherry tomato in their mouth. Some people I know can't stand spicy foods, while others fully embrace them.
Just like adults, children have different preferences and different levels of sensitivity to food textures, tastes and smells. The olfactory (smell) component of food is closely linked to food acceptance—if a child likes the way a food smells, they are more likely to try a bite.
I always recommend having fun in the spice cabinet with little ones. Pop open the top and have them see what types of smells they prefer and which ones they don't like.
Some children are more sensitive within their mouths, making some textures intolerable. As far as textures go, typically mushy textures or mixed textures (two or more textures together i.e. yogurt with fruit) are harder for children who are hypersensitive in the oral cavity, so try sticking to one texture at a time.
3. Be aware of their anxieties + fears of the unknown
If you have a toddler, you have probably learned by now that kids don't like surprises. With food, toddlers like to know what to expect in terms of what the food is, how it will taste and what it will feel like in their mouth.
So before jumping to conclusions and thinking your child just doesn't like certain foods that you have presented, entertain the idea that perhaps they are just a little scared because they don't know what to expect.
Try explaining the taste and texture a bit before asking them to try a bit. Food descriptors work wonders for fearful eaters.
4. Consider how you react or interact with food
The way in which the immediate caregiver (usually mom) interacts with food and mealtime is highly correlated with child food acceptance, plain and simple.
If you're relaxed and happy they will be too. If you are anxious, controlling, picky, depressed or maybe don't sit down and show enjoyment of meals with your child, that is going to directly impact the way in which they accept new foods.
Do your best to make mealtime fun, interactive and peaceful.
5. Limit exposure to snack + junk food
Kids who are constantly offered juice, cheerios and popcorn and other "packaged" snacks before mealtime are way less likely to eat their homecooked dinner.
Instead, offer vegetables, fruits, healthy fats and proteins for snack instead. Increased exposure to vegetables will only lead to more acceptance of vegetables but increased exposure to processed foods could potentially jeopardize their acceptance.
A great criteria for a healthy kid snack would be to include two or three of these choices: a veggie, a fruit, a healthy fat and a protein. Always offer water before meals and not juice, which can fill up little tummies.