Picky eaters like to be in control. The more independence you allow your child to have, the more you can reduce picky eating.
Promoting independent eating skills is not a guaranteed solution to reduce or prevent picky eating of course. Picky eating can occur for many reasons, so sometimes a more thorough assessment from a feeding specialist is necessary.
As parents, some things are not within are control. The goal of this article is to focus on one thing that we do have some control over!
How we approach mealtimes as parents has a big influence on how our children feel about eating.
Why Kids Become Picky Eaters
Eating is complex! It requires excellent oral motor coordination, strength, intact oral structures, sensory processing abilities, and the ability to sit and focus. Picky eating is also normal to some degree, especially in young toddlers.
It is common around age 1 for children to become much more opinionated about what they will and won’t eat. This is not a problem if it is a phase and if they are still able to get all the nutrition they need.
When kids start to reject entire food groups, that is a red flag. If their preferences continue to include less and less foods, that is also concerning. If your child’s picky eating seems outside of the norm, seek help from a feeding therapist!
Oral Motor Skills and Picky Eating
In order to eat and drink a variety of textures and consistencies, we must have excellent coordination of our jaw, tongue, lips, and cheeks. We must be able to take a bite, move the food to the side of our mouth, chew thoroughly, move the food back to our tongue, and propel it backward to swallow.
Eating seems so intuitive and simple because most of us eat just fine. But children are still learning how to eat and everything is new to them! Some children are naturally adventures, but many children are hesitant to try foods that looks or taste different.
While there are many reflexes involved in eating, children must learn advanced oral motor skills to eat difficult textures like steak and raw celery. It takes time for them to learn how to safely eat these foods. They must develop the coordination of all their oral structures in order to eat well.
Children must also develop strength in order to eat a variety of foods. If they have weakness of their lips, tongue, jaw, or cheeks, it will be difficult for them to eat certain foods.
If a child has difficulty with oral motor skills, they may become a picky eater. Picky eaters tend to be drawn to foods that are easy to eat. Many of them love chicken nuggets, French fries, chips, crackers, and cookies.
Raw veggies and meat are the most difficult foods to eat, and it is common for picky eaters to avoid these foods.
Oral Structure and Picky Eating
Children that have tongue ties, lip ties, high palates, retracted jaws, or dental issues, are more prone to become picky eaters.
If you have difficulty using your mouth properly, eating will be more challenging. If your teeth are not aligned, it can be harder to chew foods well.
If you have limited tongue mobility because the frenulum under your tongue is tight or short, you may struggle with moving certain foods around in your mouth. This can lead to increased gagging and negative experiences with food.
Children tend to avoid foods they have struggled with in the past.
Sensory Processing and Picky Eating
If you are an adult that enjoys eating a variety of tastes and textures, it may be difficult to understand why a child only wants to eat very specific foods.
Every body is different and every sensory system is different. Some people are more sensitive than others. While broccoli may taste crunchy and delicious to one person, it may taste bitter and too hard to another.
Picky eaters tend to be drawn to foods that are somewhat bland and don’t have a very stimulating texture. They tend to like foods that are firm but soften quickly.
The diet preferred by picky eaters is often called the “Beige Diet” because it consists of beige foods (with some white, yellow, or orange foods thrown in). For more information, read our article on The Beige Diet.
Picky eaters may also be particular about temperature. They may say “it’s too hot” even when you think it isn’t or they may refuse foods that are too cold for them.
Attention and Picky Eating
Kids that struggle to sit and eat a meal may struggle with the ability to focus on their food, chew thoroughly, and to self-regulate if things aren’t going their way.
Eating in general may not be very interesting to them because they prefer to run around, play with their toys, and generally be active.
They may not have the patience to sit and chew foods well and may then be more interested in snack foods like crackers and chips.
If you serve them something they don’t like, they may get upset and run away from the table.
It takes a lot of focus to sit for 10-15 mins and eat a meal. If your child struggles with attention, mealtimes may be hard for them.
Normal Toddler Development and Picky Eating
Toddlers are learning more and more about what they like and don’t like. They are practicing their communication skills and are feeling out their place in their family.
It’s normal for them to exercise those new skills by saying “no!”, throwing food on the floor, and demanding to eat specific foods. It may test your patience, but this is typically a phase and nothing to worry too much about.
If it seems to be getting worse or if they completely avoid certain textures or food groups, a feeding evaluation would be a good idea.
Why You Should Encourage Independent Eating Skills
Picky eating very often is based on very real issues as described above. Pressuring or trying to force kids to eat certain foods is a harmful approach. There is often a reason underlying picky eating and it’s important to respect that. Promoting independence can begin from day one when baby begins to eat solids!
Babies and Independent Eating
Whether you decide to start with purees or baby-led weaning, you can encourage independence with your baby. You can dip a teether or a flat spoon like the Num Num Gootensils in puree and put it on the tray for baby to pick up.
If you are starting with baby-led weaning and want to offer table foods from the beginning, check out this guide from Solid Starts. It is recommended to offer soft foods that are the width and length of 2 adult fingers.
Encouraging independent eating skills from the beginning helps to put your baby in charge of their experience. As the parent, you decide what to serve, but they decide what and when to eat.
They decide when they are ready to take the next bite, when they want to taste something else, and when they are done.
Toddlers and Independent Eating
It can be tempting to feed your toddler when they aren’t eating the food in front of them, even when you know they are capable of doing it themselves.
For some children, this won’t have a negative effect. But for children prone to picky eating it can lead to them eating even less in the future.
Why? If someone is trying to feed you something you don’t really want to eat and you feel pressured by them, eating is not so enjoyable. The more a child feels in charge of what and when they eat, the more at ease they will likely feel at the dinner table.
Independent Eating and Messy Eaters
I know, I know…Letting babies and toddlers feed themselves makes a mess. Try to remember that this stage won’t last forever.
Letting children touch, squish, and taste and spit out their food actually helps with their development and reduces picky eating. As you read above, sensory processing challenges are a common underlying cause of picky eating.
If children are constantly wiped down or are put in bibs that cover their entire body, they aren’t being allowed to experience their food. They need to get to know their food before they can really be comfortable eating it.
Reduce the Mess with Independent Eating
If mess really bothers you, there are some things you can do.
Take Their Clothes Off
Unless it’s really cold in your home, go ahead and remove your child’s clothing during meals. Keeping them in just a diaper reduces spills on their clothes. You can also just remove their shirt as this is usually the article of clothing that gets the dirtiest.
Use a Waterproof Bib
While convenient for parents, I don’t recommend using bib’s with sleeves. These bibs reduce the sensory experience of eating too much.
But using a short sleeve or sleeveless waterproof bib like the Bumpkins Superbib is perfect for keeping their shirt clean. Plus, these bibs are machine washable!
Splash Mat Under the High-Chair
A splash mat under the high-chair protects your floors and makes clean up a breeze. You can simply throw this Bumpkins Splash Mat in the washer at the end of day or wipe it clean.
Offer the Messiest Meals Before Bathtime
If you want to offer yogurt, spaghetti, or some other inevitably messy food, try to time the meal to be before bath. They may get dirty, but at least you can go straight to the tub after!
Picky eating is often stressful for parents. For most children this is a phase and how you approach meals can have a big impact! The more you support your child’s independence, the better their eating skills will likely be in the future! Try to be patient and take it one day at a time. If you’re concerned and don’t think it’s a phase, don’t hesitate to ask for help!
This post contains affiliate links