If you have a picky eater in your home, mealtimes may be a difficult time of the day instead of the enjoyable, social routine that you picture for your family. Many picky eaters have anxiety or fear around food or mealtimes which they don’t know how to express to their parents or caregivers aside from refusing foods or calling them “yucky.” When children present with anxiety or fear around food, implementing routine and structure into mealtimes can provide a sense of control and comfort for children, helping mealtimes to run more smoothly for all participants!
Set up a meal schedule. Try to set up your child’s days so that their meals occur at expected times and are simply part of their daily routine. Breakfast may be shortly after they wake up and before school, a snack may come mid-morning, lunch occurs at school, an afternoon snack, dinner happens shortly after coming home for the day or after a particular activity. Attempt to avoid unplanned snacks to help your child become hungry for meals and understand that designated meal/snack times are their time to interact with food. If your child benefits from a visual schedule for their day, include mealtimes on their schedule. If you think your child could benefit from a visual schedule for their day, mention it to any of their therapists!
Start each mealtime the same. Use the same wording and announce to your child that it’s time to wash their hands to get ready to eat! Help your child clean their hands, clean your hands as part of the routine and approach the dining area of your home together.
Implement designated seats for family members. You may notice that children avoiding eating will use any and all tactics to avoid consuming their food! When their own seat, as well as other family members’ seats, are set, this doesn’t need to be a discussion point before the meal can be started.
Place an “All Done Bowl” on the table. Having an “All Done Bowl” is a great way to give your child control as to deciding when they are finished with food. Even if your child hasn’t consumed any of a particular food before placing it in the “All Done Bowl,” the act of placing it in the bowl has gotten them to interact with that food! Exposure and interaction with food are the first steps in eventually consuming food! As an added plus, the “All Done Bowl” can be a positive way to reduce the throwing of foods.
Serve food items one at a time and in small portions. A child who has anxiety around foods and/or eating generally is easily overwhelmed by many choices or large portions of food! If the child consumes all of the food, offer more. If they place the food in the “All Done Bowl,” praise them for touching the food and move on to the next food item.
When possible, eat the same foods alongside your child. A parent’s, caregiver’s, or sibling’s example can be great motivation for a child to explore and consume foods.
At the conclusion of the meal, have your child help clear the table. Have the child bring their dishes to the sink or dishwasher, if they are able. Have them help wipe down the table and pick up any dropped food.
Praise! Praise! Praise! Make mealtimes a positive experience for your child by providing frequent praise during mealtimes. Praise them for tolerating a food on their plate, touching a food, putting food in the “All Done Bowl,” consuming food, etc.
Mealtimes can be enjoyable for the whole family! Remember that implementing new routines can be difficult, but consistency and structure will ultimately help your child to feel more comfortable and at ease during mealtimes.