Updated: Nov 3
Feeding picky eaters can be a challenging task for parents, but with the right tools for fussy eaters at your disposal, mealtime can become a more enjoyable and stress-free experience for both you and your child. We've compiled five tools for fussy eaters to help you navigate the challenges of feeding picky eaters and encourage them to try new foods.
Disclaimer: It is critical that if your child is at risk of aspiration or poor swallowing, is on reduced or specific textures of food that you seek guidance for feeding from your medical team or contact a Speech Pathologist or your GP for guidance.
Tools for Fussy Eaters #1 Family Meals - Fostering a Positive Food Environment
One effective way to encourage your child to try new foods is by making mealtime a family affair. Try serving meals family-style, with all the dishes placed in the middle of the table on platters or in bowls. Allow your kids to serve themselves, giving them the opportunity to interact with different foods and decide for themselves what they'd like to try. Here are some important factors to keep in mind:
Children learn by observing. Make sure you and your kids are eating the same food. If they are unsure of a food, they are going to look to you to see if it is ok. Did you pull a funny face? Have you died (hahaha) – all to make sure that the food is safe and it is, in fact, ok to eat.
Focus on Sensory Properties:
Instead of labelling food as healthy or unhealthy, discuss the sensory properties of the food. Encourage conversations about how it feels, smells, or sounds. This takes the pressure off your child and helps expand their food preferences.
Prioritise Preferred Foods
Ensure that your child has access to their preferred foods during meals. The volume of preferred foods should be your first priority. Remember, "fed is best," and ensuring your child eats is crucial.
Tools for Fussy Eaters #2: Encourage Food Play - Exploring with Senses
Contrary to the conventional wisdom of not playing with food, allowing kids to explore their meals can actually promote food acceptance. Here's how:
Fun With Food:
Turn mealtime into a laughing affair by creating funny faces with food. Use mashed potatoes for the face base, carrot sticks for the nose, cherry tomatoes for the eyes, and broccoli florets for the hair. You can let your child assemble their own funny face or create different faces together. This encourages them to interact with their food and explore new ingredients. If you're looking for amazing tools for fussy eaters, you can't go past the humble cookie cutter either! Cookie cutters are also great ways to interact with food and make fun and exciting shapes.
All aboard the food train!
Create a train using veggies, cheese, and small pieces of meat. Lay out cucumber slices for wheels, cheese cubes for cargo, and lean turkey slices for the train cars. Use a bit of cream cheese as "glue" to assemble the train. Let your child be the conductor and have them build their own train. This hands-on approach can make them excited about eating and exploring new foods.
Provide an extra plate where your child can place food they want to explore or set aside if they don't like it. Knowing they have an option to put it aside reduces mealtime anxiety. This is one of our best tools for fussy eaters, that most people don't consider!
Let Them Keep Their Spoons
When kids try to feed themselves, let them have ownership of their spoon. Avoid scraping food from around their mouth to ensure they have control over their eating. When we are talking about tools for fussy eaters, we need to remember cutlery helps bring a sense of autonomy and control which might help the fussiest of eaters feel more confident to try things out. Providing eating tools for kids is a great way to get them used to cultural mealtime norms and make them feel grown up and important.
Food exploration can get messy, but that's a positive sign that your child is engaging with their meal. Choose an easy-to-clean surface and involve your child in cleaning up after mealtime.
Tools for Fussy Eaters #3 Posture and Positioning - Creating a Comfortable Eating Environment
This is a really important aspect that often gets overlooked. Sometimes a child's lack of eating is not based on sensory or swallowing difficulties but instead because they don't have the appropriate positioning for eating. When our feet aren't touching the floor,
our bodies put all the effort into keeping us stable, and our body often locks itself into a position with our arms locked to our sides to keep stable. This makes it really difficult to reach out for our food and sometimes even comfortably open and close our jaws to eat. A comfortable chair and place to sit are wonderful eating tools for kids
Stability is Key
Ensure your child's feet touch the floor or use a stool to support them. Maintain 90-degree angles at the hips and knees, and position the table or tray between their chest and belly button for easy food access.
A stable and comfortable position helps children coordinate hand-to-mouth movements, which is crucial for eating.
Tools for Fussy Eaters #4 Time Limits - Structured Mealtime
Setting a timeframe for meals can provide structure and predictability for your child
Let your child know when the meal is about to start to allow them to prepare mentally.
Set a Time Limit
Limit mealtime to around 30 minutes. Afterward, involve your child in cleaning up. Once mealtime is over, the kitchen is closed, and the only available option until the next scheduled meal is water. Remember for younger kids they ideally have 5 meals a day, but the reason behind this rule is that kids will often snack but then aren't hungry at mealtimes. Kids always have access to their preferred foods at meal times, so they will still be able to eat until full, but this aims to ensure we are eating when hungry and not snacking, which impacts our appetite and ability to try new foods.