As Occupational Therapists we are often chatting to parents about tips to handle fussy eating in toddlers. This seems to be a common challenge for parents with little ones in this age group. Even babies who were open to trying new solids, as toddlers, can become fussy. Part of the problem is that toddlers are working towards being independent and want to make their own choices. Mealtimes provide a great platform for this power struggle! The other part of this is that some toddlers are quite sensory sensitive and mealtimes are sensory rich experiences, which can be overwhelming. The danger of not encouraging your toddler to be more adventurous with their food experiences, is that their diet can quickly become very limited.
Eating is a complex issue, which would benefit from a holistic approach. Our tips and advise aims to tackle the sensory challenges that may be contributing to fussy eating. However, other professionals such as Speech and Language therapists or Dieticians can offer valuable insight into other contributing areas. Our suggestions as sensory trained Occupational Therapists is aimed to help you make informed decisions about what you are wiling to try for your family.
Tips from Occupational Therapists:
- Pick your battles – Choose one meal where you are going to try introduce a new food and where you are going to be strict on the rules around eating – usually when your little one is most hungry. Allow one other meal time a day, which is fuss free and where no pressure is placed on your child.
- Make this meal time social – Remember that eating is a social event. Ensure that you are sitting together at the dinner table and all eating the same meal together. Set a timer so that this meal time does not draw on for too long, we would suggest 20-30 minutes only. During this time, we encourage everybody to stay at the table and disconnect from cellphones and televisions! For this 20-30 minutes you are engaged in the mealtime as a family.
- Set the sensory scene – Think about the sensory environment and limit or reduce sensory background input. Put the TV or radio off, limit smells (consider the food temperature – hot food has a strong smell, which can be off putting for a sensory sensitive child) and reduce visual clutter.
- Sensory prep before and after the meal – Make sure that for about 20 minutes before the meal and for about 20-30 minutes after the meal, you are doing something sensory soothing or calming involving the proprioceptive (deep pressure sense) and the vestibular (movement sense). This could be swinging, jumping on the trampoline, going for a ride around the block on a bicycle or black bike, playing rough and tumble pillow fight games with mom/dad etc. The mouth is a very sensory soothing tool (think of a baby using their dummy!). Chewing on ice can desensitise the mouth. You can try making some juice pops in the freezer and offer your toddler one of these before dinner to chew or bite down on. If he helps make the juice pop with you, he may be more inclined to try it. Using a vibrating toothbrush before a meal time can also desensitise the mouth ahead of a meal where you are going to try a new food.
- Use a divided plate – Don’t let the familiar and loved food that you know your toddler will eat, touch the food that is new or that you know he may not eat. Be sure that there is a food choice that he will eat on his plate.
- Allow your toddler to choose when buying foods – At the shops, allow your toddler to choose between 2 choices of the food that you are wanting to introduce. That way if he refuses, you can say but that is the one he chose!
- Allow your toddler to help cook – When he is in the kitchen baking and cooking, he can be exposed to whatever new and unfamiliar foods you’re cooking by seeing, touching and smelling them. So even if he doesn’t end up tasting it, at least he has been exposed to the food, which is half the battle won.
- Ask your toddler to hep you dish your plates – When a little one dishes, invariably he messes! This can then be licked off with any luck! Try to avoid wiping or cleaning till after the meal.
- 1 touch/smell/taste rule – Towards the end of the meal (perhaps in the last 5 minutes), implement the one touch rule. Start with an easier option e.g. touch or smell and only once he is used to the rule you can implement the taste rule. He then has to touch or smell each food item on his plate. He may need to be supported through this. He could sit on your lap and you could give him some sensory soothing deep pressure squeezes. Try to make this a firm family rule that applies to everyone! Be prepared for it to possibly end in tears. Make sure the time for this power struggle is short, perhaps just the last 5 minutes. Try to choose a new food that you are sure he will like the taste of to make the first experience of this new rule a positive one. Model this new rule for your little one by doing it first while he watches.
- Bring food into play – Have a teddy bear’s picnic or a tea party regularly in play. Use toy pots, pans, cups, jugs etc. in play and put real food in there! Make a mess! Have water or milk in spay bottles or jugs to entice him to mix the dry textures with the wet textures. Be prepared to taste the concoction to encourage him to do the same. Again the messier the better then there is more chance of him getting it onto his fingers and perhaps even licking his fingers clean!
- Crunchy foods – Always have “hard work” foods on the plate. The mouth can be very sensory soothing if the food has to be bitten, crunched or chewed well. So foods such as droëwors, biltong, dried mango, popcorn, crunchy carrots, apple, mango etc. are sensory soothing.
- Have fun with presentation – Sometimes bringing in your toddler’s interests into food can help entice him to eat something. So if he loves cars and trains, then maybe presenting the food as a car or a plane may help. Pinterest has loads of ideas for this! Have fun with it and try involve your toddler in the process!
- Try a different feeder – If the power struggle with one particular person is worse, consider having someone different handle the meal! Sometimes a certain person e.g. mom / dad is too close to the child to make a change in the eating habits. So get granny or nanny involved in the process. It may be easier!
- Remember that this is a slow process – Move slowly and don’t try to incorporate too many changes or new foods at a time.
If you have tried some tips and are still concerned, contact a sensory integration trained Occupational Therapist, a Speech and Language therapist or a Dietician to assist you. This can be a challenging time for your family and we wish you luck!