How to Help Your Picky Eater
3 Easy Steps: Expose, Explore, Expand
Having a picky eater can be stressful, especially when you're trying to get your child the nutrients they need. We partnered with Melanie Potock, feeding specialist and author, to help make your journey a little easier!
In this video, Melanie discusses why kids become picky eaters and ways you can help your child overcome their picky eating. After finishing the video, make sure to visit https://www.healthy-height.com/positiveways to find additional resources, including an eBook with positive phrases to use and worksheets to practice the Three E's - Expose, Explore and Expand.
We look forward to supporting you and your family on this journey!
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Do you find yourself wondering when or if your child is going to eat the dinner you prepared? Does meal time stress you out? Do you worry that your child isn’t getting the nutrients his or her body needs to grow?
I get it.
I’m Melanie Potock, and I was a mom of a very picky eater. Now I’m an author of four parenting books on how to raise healthy, happy eaters. Plus, I’m a certified speech language pathologist, and I specialize in teaching kids how to bite, chew, and swallow all kinds of food.
When I was working with my daughter who was a picky eater, I realized two things: One, this was going to take time, and two, I had better make the experience fun for us both.
I’ve learned that everyone’s food adventure is unique and has different roadblocks and detours. But there are three strategies that help kids learn to enjoy any kind of food, even vegetables. I call this formula the Three E’s — Expose, Explore and Expand.
Today, I’m here with Healthy Height to share my professional tips and to help you get back to happier mealtimes with your family.
In my entire career, I’ve never met a parent who caused their kids to be a picky eater — this isn’t your fault. Picky eating isn’t a symptom of bad parenting. It’s a condition that can remain unchanged because of a combination of factors, some starting in infancy and others that are part of natural development.
For example, toddlers, naturally go through almost an entire year of cautious eating. But the key is that you help them emerge from this phase as an adventurous eater.
To help you understand picky eating, I want you to imagine about three blocks, stacked on top of each other.
The first block is physiology — that’s how your body functions. This block is the foundation for all of us to crave healthy food.
If a baby has a history of reflux or a food intolerance, for example, that baby quickly learns eating can hurt.
Physiology also includes sensory processing, or our ability to tolerate some of the sensations around us. Do you have a child who has trouble with certain textures? That might be a sensory issue.
Emotions and feelings of anxiousness can contribute to a kid’s hesitancy to try a new food. Remember, our thoughts are part of our physiology, too.
The second block represents motor skills. As you know, kids develop gross and fine motor skills as they grow. Delays in gross motor skills, like sitting up independently later than expected, can impact a child’s ability to eat.
Trunk control is essential to support fine motor skills like picking up small pieces of food. Even chewing is a fine motor skill dependent on gross motor development.
Now, let’s look at the third block.
This block is learned behaviors — or why kids behave the way they do around food. There can be many bumps along the road to learning to be an adventurous, healthy eater, but they may not seem very obvious.
Repeated discomfort around food and even mild motor delays can teach kids that eating is hard. They learn to avoid certain foods, except those they know to be safe.
When this happens, we — as parents — begin to parent our kids differently than we intended because we worry.
No one wants their child to be hungry, to be upset around food and — frankly — we want to have a peaceful family dinner.
Before long, our kids fall into the picky eater trap.
But it’s OK. The Three E’s can help your child climb out of their fussy eater rut. As a parent or caregiver, your mission is to create positive memories by exposing your kids to fresh and wholesome vegetables and other new foods.
It is vital to expose kids to new food throughout the year. Research shows a child takes eight to 15 exposures to a new food just to enhance acceptance of that food.
A key part of exposure is food play where you introduce your child with hands-on activities that familiarize the body and brain with the sensory aspects of new foods like touch, aroma and their sounds.
When you bring home rainbow carrots or beets from the store, set your kids up at the sink to wash off the dirt with a silly sponge or a pair of exfoliation gloves.
Take them to the store or farmer’s market and let them pick out the prettiest vegetables on display.
Think of it as a first playdate. We want it to go well and be focused on fun. Here are a few ideas to expose your kids to new and healthy foods:
Green Bean Tic-Tac-Toe
Using fresh green beans, have your kids create a three-by-three grid — like a hashtag. Then give them different-colored veggies for the X’s and O’s. I like to use cucumber slices as the O’s and carrot or jicama sticks for the X’s.
The object of the game is to get three in a row. If you have older kids, make a bigger green bean board, where the object of the game is to get four in a row.
What do Brussel sprouts, pea pods and ears of corn have in common?
They’re all really fun to open, peel and pull apart.
A simple activity kids can do is a veggie game. Ask them to see who can shuck an ear of corn fastest. Encourage them to pull leaves off a Brussel sprout. Or have them shell as many peas as they can and ask them to find the biggest pea.
And get creative, what veggies can you find in your kitchen your kids can play with?
Vegetables are great building blocks to create all sorts of things. One of my favorite activities for kids is making animals out of veggies.
You could make cauliflower sheep. Get your kids involved right away. Have them wash a cauliflower head. Remove the core. Then, help your kids break the florets off in different shapes and sizes.
Use toothpicks or skewers to connect the florets together. Raisins can be threaded onto skewers for hooves and olives can be halved and used for ears. If your kids are younger, blanch and cool the cauliflower florets so that it’s easy for little hands to insert skewers.
You can also create Cucumber Caterpillars. To do this, you’ll need a sheet of white paper, colored pencils or crayons and a sliced English cucumber. For this activity, I prefer an English cucumber because it is longer and skinnier than a traditional cucumber and almost has no seeds. The skin is thinner too, which makes it more inviting for hesitant eaters to interact with.
Slice up other fruits and vegetables for the caterpillar’s body. Pair a fruit or vegetable your child enjoys with a new food. If your child likes red apples, use them for this activity.
Have your kids create caterpillars on white paper by laying cucumber slices next to other fruit and veggie slices. Use a big tomato slice for the head. Then draw in the antennae or feet with a crayon or colored pencil. You can even add grass and trees to the background.
When kids are exposed to new foods through fun activities, games or food play, do you know what they’re doing? They are making friends with those foods, and that’s the first step to eventually eating them.
Another way you can expose your child to a different food is by putting something new on his or her plate.
I often remind parents that we want to keep this experience underwhelming. Here’s what I mean: Let’s say you’re not a fan of lima beans. Can you imagine how you would feel if someone put two cups of lima beans on your plate and said, “OK. Here’s your dinner.” You might not be eager to eat that night.
This is why it’s so important for parents to present a small sample of the new food — never more than one tablespoon.
Remember, when you’re exposing your kids to new food, this isn’t the time to comment about whether or not your child is eating the food they’ve been exposed to.
Expose is the phase where your child gets to know the food. The next step, Explore, is where we start to encourage tasting.
The second step is exploration. Keep in mind: exploring new foods never ends — just like you and I are exposed to and explore new foods throughout our lifetime.
Once kids become familiar with all the sensory properties of food, they are willing to start exploring and will become more interested in cooking with you. In this step, you’ll begin to explore more aspects of the veggies you’ve already exposed your kids to — things like texture, taste and temperature — through recipes.
Encourage your kids to prep and cook food alongside you, every step of the way. This is how you’ll introduce taste testing.
One way to do this, is to keep a jar of tiny spoons in the kitchen. These are the same spoons you get at the ice cream store when you ask for a sample. Professional chefs use them to taste as they cook, and you little chef can do the same thing.
Encourage frequent tastes of whatever you’re making together, but remember, not everything will taste good right away, and that’s OK. Our job as chefs is to determine what else a food needs to taste just right. Maybe we need to add a little butter or basil to the dish. Those frequent tastings are the secret at this stage.
Here’s another way you can encourage your kids to try new and different foods. I call this activity the Sweet Potato Bar.
Roast some sweet potatoes and enlist the help of your food explorer to fill small containers with fun toppings. Try mini-marshmallows, broccoli tops, greek yogurt, nuts, raisins or even chocolate chips. Have your child choose the toppings he thinks would taste good and add them to the sweet potato.
Want to try a taste of the sweet potato? Again, encourage your child to grab a tiny spoon, take a small dip and taste.
When I’m working with kids to help them get over their picky eating habits, I always tell them not every taste has to taste good. We are just practicing. We are testing. We have the power to taste a food and change it to suit our palate.
After your kid takes a few tastes while you’re in the kitchen together, be sure to show him the bowl of used spoons. It’s a good feeling for kids to see how many used spoons are in that bowl. If you keep the experiences underwhelming and fun — like the potato bar — you’ll have more and more spoons in this bowl in no time.
Parents often like to move to the Expand step right away, but the more you practice Expose and Explore, you’ll begin to notice a change in your child.
Kids become more relaxed and curious about new foods and are more willing to take tiny tastes on their own. That’s your signal to begin to expand their food experiences by cooking fancier recipes together or trying something that’s new for everyone in the family. The fact that your son or daughter is interested in making a more complex recipe is a huge step. It’s not about taking bigger tastes. Your child might still only want to try small tastes, and that’s perfectly fine.
Remember to be a positive role model and say phrases like “I didn’t think I would like these brownies, because they have black beans in them, and I don’t usually like black beans. But I like them in brownies, and I think I’m going to try taking tiny tastes of them when we make these. I bet someday, I’ll like black beans all by themselves if I keep tasting them.”
Kids need to see that not every bite tastes good and that you don’t like everything either, but you’re willing to try to learn to enjoy all kinds of food.
One of the most important family rules to remember is Don’t yuck somebody else’s yum. That means, if you don’t have anything nice to say about the food, don’t say anything at all. Maybe Dad or little sister loves broccoli, so don’t spoil it by saying something like “yuck” or “ew”. It’s a rule you can adopt right away as you begin to follow the Three E’s: Expose, Explore and Expand!
Like I said, your child isn’t a picky eater because of you, but — as the parent or caregiver — you can help your child get out of her picky eater rut. One of the things parents ask me about is how to talk to their kids in a way that encourages adventurous eating.
I hear this question quite a bit, so we’ve compiled a list of positive phrases and things you can say to your child to encourage tastes.