An Occupational Therapists Approach for Picky Eaters at Mealtime

As occupational therapists, one of the common challenges we see in children is picky eating habits during mealtime. Mealtime can be a stressful experience for both children and parents when dealing with picky eaters. However, with the right approach and strategies, it is possible to turn mealtime into a positive and enjoyable experience for everyone involved. In this blog post, we’ll share some valuable tips and techniques that can help parents navigate through the challenges of picky eating with the guidance of occupational therapy.

Pre Meal Activities

Before mealtime, involving your child in physical activities can play a pivotal role in preparing them for a more relaxed and receptive dining experience. Activities don’t need to be strenuous or time-consuming; they can be as straightforward as engaging in a brief period of play outside, stretching together, or even dancing to a couple of their favorite songs. These activities help in mitigating any mealtime apprehension by channeling their energy positively and regulating their sensory inputs. By incorporating movement and physical engagement before sitting down to eat, you create an opportunity for your child to approach the table with a reduced level of stress, making them more open to the idea of eating and trying new foods. This approach not only aids in creating a serene mealtime atmosphere but also supports your child’s overall well-being by integrating essential physical activity into their daily routine.

Creating a Supportive Mealtime Environment

Crafting a supportive environment during mealtimes is crucial for addressing the challenges of picky eaters. This nurturing space should focus on encouragement and the celebration of small victories, such as when a child tries a new food or shows curiosity about a dish they’ve previously avoided. Avoid creating a stressful or pressurized atmosphere that might lead to negative associations with eating. Instead, maintain a calm and positive tone throughout the meal. Use encouraging words and acknowledge their efforts, no matter how small. This positive reinforcement can gradually build their confidence in trying new foods. It’s also beneficial to minimize distractions that could divert their attention from the meal. Keeping the dining area free from electronic devices ensures that the focus remains on the eating experience and the food itself. By fostering a supportive and distraction-free environment, children are more likely to engage with their meals in a meaningful way, paving the path toward overcoming picky eating habits.

The Importance of Family Meals

Gathering for family meals plays a pivotal role in the journey towards overcoming picky eating behaviors. Striving to share at least one meal a day as a unit can significantly reinforce positive eating habits and offer a structured opportunity for children to observe and mimic the healthy eating practices of adults and siblings. These shared moments are not merely about nourishment but also about embedding a sense of routine, security, and belonging, which can make new food exploration less intimidating for a picky eater. Witnessing family members enjoying a variety of dishes can naturally pique a child’s curiosity and willingness to try new flavors and textures. It’s a subtle yet powerful form of encouragement without the need for direct coaxing or persuasion, thereby reducing mealtime battles. Additionally, this practice underlines the value of social interaction over meals, teaching valuable lessons about conversation, manners, and the importance of family time beyond the aspect of eating. Through consistent participation in family meals, children learn to associate food with pleasure and togetherness, fostering a more adventurous and less resistant approach to eating over time.

Serving Meals Family Style for Autonomy 

Adopting a “family style” serving method at mealtime can significantly empower children, especially those who are picky eaters. This strategy involves placing the prepared dishes in the center of the table, allowing each family member to help themselves to the amount and variety of food they prefer. This method of serving provides children with the opportunity to exercise choice and independence, key factors in building a positive relationship with food. When children are given the control to decide what and how much to eat from a selection that includes both their favorites and less preferred items, it subtly encourages them to explore and potentially try new foods without the pressure often felt when served a plate prepared by someone else. This autonomy not only alleviates the mealtime tension but also instills a sense of responsibility and decision-making in young eaters. They learn to listen to their hunger cues and make choices about their food, fostering a healthier attitude towards eating in general. Encouraging children to serve themselves, or even assist in serving others, can also enhance their motor skills and reinforce the concept of sharing and family unity during meals. It’s a gentle way to introduce variety into their diet while maintaining a sense of control and safety within the familiar context of family mealtime.

The “Learning Plate” Technique

The “learning plate” offers a novel way to gently nudge picky eaters toward embracing new foods without overwhelming them. This strategy involves a smaller, separate plate placed beside the child’s main dish. It’s designated for unfamiliar or less preferred foods, allowing children to interact with these new items in a non-threatening manner. By placing a piece of a new food on this plate, children can engage with it through touching, smelling, and eventually, tasting, at their own comfort level. This method respects their autonomy and reduces anxiety around new foods by keeping them distinct from their preferred meals. Encouraging curiosity and exploration in this way facilitates a gradual, positive introduction to a variety of foods. It’s a step-by-step process aimed at transforming apprehension into familiarity, setting the stage for eventual tasting and adding new foods to their diet. This technique emphasizes patience and progress, acknowledging each child’s individual journey towards a broader palate.

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