It's rare to find a little kid who's super chill about food, and that's a huge bummer for parents, who often express love through the meals they serve. Does your toddler have a strong aversion to crunchy foods like pretzels and carrot sticks? Or does she dislike mushy foods, like mashed potatoes and scrambled eggs? As long as autism spectrum disorder, sensory processing problems, or anxiety aren't at play (ask your doctor if you suspect they are), food texture aversion is probably just a phase. Here are 7 ways to help your kid with food texture issues, if you've got a seemingly picky kid in your home.
We live in a food-obsessed culture, and parenting can sometimes feel like a high-impact sport. Don't force your child to eat, advised Zero To Three, or make your meals into a battleground. That means refraining from imploring kids to take "just one more bite," or offering them cake if they finish that vegetable. If it helps, try not to pay too much attention to what they eat while they're at the table. Let them enjoy and explore on their own. While not every toddler will display a perfectly balanced diet every meal or every day, they generally do manage to get enough nutrition over the course of a whole week, noted Raising Children. So when it comes to food texture issues, easy does it, moms and dads.
1. Understand Where Food Texture Issues Come From
Food texture issues can arise suddenly. If a child tries a new food and strongly dislikes it, she might decide that she now hates all foods that share its texture and start avoiding the whole category. "This can quickly become a habit and a somewhat automatic response from the child to say they don't like it, or to spit it out," explains Justine Roth, MS, RD, in an email interview. "When it gets more severe they won't even try things anymore."
Some kids develop issues with textures because of an "oral motor feeding delay," Roth expains. In the most common cases, the delay causes difficulty when a child tries to move her tongue from side to side, pushing food onto the sides of her mouth to chew. Unable to chew easily, she might begin to avoid certain textures that she struggles to break down. "This can lead to a defense mechanism of gagging, spitting out, or pocketing the food in their cheeks and not swallowing it," says Roth.
Sensory processing issues can also cause trouble with textures, and they can be difficult to diagnose. If you suspect your child is struggling with sensory processing in all aspects of her life — not just eating, but also playing, getting dressed, and interacting with the outside world — consult your doctor.
"If it's sensory-related, you’ll likely need an occupational therapist (OT) to be involved," says Roth. "They will have strategies for navigating through which issue they are experiencing. Usually foods are introduced in a step-wise process," as in exposure therapy.
2. Keep Meals Low Key
"Parents can help by trying to introduce new foods in situations where the child will feel the most comfortable trying it," says Roth. "Not rushing them or pressuring them is also a good tactic. Not playing short order cook to the only foods they will eat when it is in the early stages of 'picky' is also a big point I try to stress to parents."
Eat dinner at a table, and engage in cheerful conversation. If they ask for a favorite food that you haven't provided, don't hop up and make it. Instead, gently tell them, "Today we're having peas, carrots, rice, and chicken. We can have something else another time."
At the table, keep the ambiance comfortable, and don't monitor every bite your child eats. The less stress your child feels at meal times, the more open they'll be to experimenting with other textures.
3. Keep Introducing New Foods
Roth advises parents to focus on offering kids a well-rounded diet, and fostering a willingness to try new things. For weeks and months your child might resist, eating macaroni dinner after macaroni dinner each night. But if you keep patiently offering them cauliflower alongside that meal, chances are they'll take a bite one day. And maybe another the next. The world of tastes and textures are new to your child, but there are tons of great foods out there. Keep offering new ones, and something's bound to take.
If your child absolutely will not try any new foods for weeks, don't fight with them. But you might consider asking your doctor for their advice.
4. Break Out The Play-Dough
If your child is averse to a certain texture — say, mushy things like mashed potatoes — encourage them to play with mushy things during the day. This might help make the texture seem less frightening all around, according to Momables. For kids who only eat the mashed and mushy things, they suggest breaking out the dry pasta for arts and crafts.
5. Don't Reward With Food
Have you ever told your child, if you just take one more bite, you can have cake for dessert? Healthy Children cautioned that, this is a pathway to problem eating. Don't fixate on the amount of food your child eats, and don't mingle desserts with your child's emotional life. You want them to see food as sustenance, not as a potential means of punishment.
6. Offer Plenty Of Choices
Young kids love choices — two or three is enough. Psychology Today noted that offering options (think, green beans or spinach for your side dish) helps kids to feel empowered and independent.
If you think about it, there's not much in a child's life that they have the power to control. What they eat or don't eat, however, is within their power. Let them exercise choice by offering a few healthy options of different textures at each meal.
7. Be Patient
Unless autism spectrum disorder or another condition is at issue, the picky eating is likely just a phase (albeit a frustration one). As a parent, try not to agonize too much over every meal. As long as you child is growing, gaining weight, and functioning day-to-day, everything's probably fine. Picky eating is normal for young kids, but an aversion to a certain texture when they're 7 doesn't mean they'll still be avoiding that texture at 16.