Feeding a child can cause the most anxiety-inducing moments of the day… OR it can be an enjoyable experience that brings parent and child closer together. The following guidelines can empower your family to start out on the right foot when feeding your baby, or if you have a picky eater, to take steps toward positive feeding moments.
The foundation to success in eating and feeding is creating peaceful mealtimes. If your child is dreading coming to the table every time, he likely will not feel calm enough to explore and try new things. You might try getting rid of the pressure that too often surrounds eating by talking about a happy moment each family member had during the day instead of focusing the dinner conversation on food. A couple of weeks of this change could be enough to let your child relax around food, opening up the way to progress in trying new things.
Avoid mistakes early on
This video gives great tips for introducing solids to your baby, which include not giving up on foods too quickly and not trying to limit the mess. It is also important to wait to introduce solids until the baby is ready, meaning she can sit up, do something with the spoon, and touch and smear the food around. At this age your baby is getting plenty of nutrients from breastmilk or formula, so don’t worry about how much food she actually eats. When and how you start the journey of trying new food with your child sets the tone for meals throughout life.
This video can help you think about your own history with trying new food, allowing you to better relate to your child’s experience. If you haven’t tried a grasshopper before, you likely wouldn’t go straight to putting a spoonful of grasshoppers in your mouth. For your child, a strawberry might seem as unknown and strange as a grasshopper. Take things slowly and let your child work up to being comfortable with a new food.
Listen to cues
Contrary to popular belief, the goal isn’t to “get” your child to eat a certain amount or type of food, rather the goal is for your child to enjoy eating so he can have a healthy long term relationship with food. If the little guy is turning his head away, clamping his mouth closed, pushing away the food, trying to get away from it, crying, or gagging, he is signaling that he is not enjoying the experience and needs something to change. You might find out if he is full, has other needs (e.g. he’s tired, needs a diaper change, has sensory or movement needs), or feels nervous about the new food. You might try offering that food again in a few days. (Did you know that children may need to be offered food 10 times or more before they like it?) When a child is leaning toward the food and opening his mouth, that’s a good sign that he is ready for more.
Encourage baby steps
If it seems like feelings of worry or anxiety are keeping your child from trying new foods, you might try introducing food that is similar in color, flavor, and texture to the food she is already eating so that the change is less drastic. You might also serve new foods alongside foods they already enjoy, or use dips to dilute the new flavor.
If you need to take smaller steps, you might help your child get comfortable with the new food before she has it in her mouth so she can know what to expect. You could have her experience the food from a distance (watching someone else touch or eat it) – this is one reason family mealtimes are so great! Next, she might try interacting with it close up (touching it, smelling it, licking it, etc.) to get even more familiar with the food. Be sure to follow her pace and don’t ever force something into her mouth!
Celebrate mealtimes and a love of food
If mealtimes are difficult for your child because he feels he is always disappointing you or he feels pressured to eat a certain way, look for opportunities to create positive moments around food. Making crafts with food (e.g. stringing dry noodles to make necklaces or finding toys in a bowl of dry rice) can be a fun way to interact with food without the pressure to eat. You might also have the child make a snack or meal for someone else, or he could do a mealtime job like setting the table or rounding up the family for dinner. Make sure to thank him for helping.
At the end of the day (or meal) you are not alone in these struggles and there is help and hope for your family dinner! Don’t give up. You are a good parent, and your sacrifices to care for your child are honorable!
- For information and tips on feeding for each age, see here.
- More on mealtime peace can be found here and here.
- For even more ideas for feeding challenges, see here and here.
- For post-NICU babies’ unique feeding challenges (whether you want to avoid these or are currently experiencing them), check out these free webinars (here and here).
- Resources for parents of children with long standing eating issues or pediatric feeding disorders:
- Anxious eaters, anxious mealtimes – This book includes many helpful strategies to try on your own or with a feeding therapist. It is authored by Marsha Dunn Klein who has 5 decades of experience in the field of pediatric feeding.
- Parenting Picky Eaters – Facebook support group
- Early Intervention will evaluate your child 0-3 years old for free to see if he/she qualifies for help with eating issues.
- Your medical provider can make a referral to your local hospital for feeding therapy for children older than 3.