By Samantha Smadella
One of the most common concerns of parents is getting their child to eat different foods. Kids tend to like to stick with foods that they know and trust, and it can be hard to get them to expand their taste palate.
Why are picky eaters so picky?
Until we develop our memories and formulate new concepts based off our lived experiences, the majority of how we perceive the world comes from our sensory input. This is why children are always touching things, putting things in their mouths and smelling things that make parents scratch their heads in confusion. However, as their little brains and bodies develop, it can often be hard to regulate between processing too much information and too little. This can lead to melt downs and avoidance behaviours.
If given the choice, kids would prefer to eat foods that have little or no spice and have the same look, smell, texture and flavour every time they eat it.
Lets look at some examples:
Think of something that most children can't stand - the tomato. How many times have you bitten into a tomato that was just awful? Most likely, more times than you have bitten into a garden ripe tomato that you raved about to your friends.
What about a blueberry? Some are squishy and others are firm. Some will be sour and some are sweet. You truly can't know what it will be like until you pop it into your mouth!
If, however, we look at the most commonly accepted foods for kids: pasta, pizza, chicken nugget, rice... The experience is nearly identical each and every time. They know what to expect and don't feel like these foods are a threat.
So, how can you expand your child's tolerance to different foods without a battle?
I discussed earlier how the sensory systems can create an overwhelming stress on children when they don't know what to expect. Instead of focusing on a whole meal, and creating tension around mealtime, use the universal method of learning that children do naturally: play!
Tea parties can be a fun experience for children because they get to mimic the actions of a grown-up while controlling their environment and connecting with others at their own level. By offering to participate in this game, you are able to sit at the same level as your child and practice back and forth communication while building attachment and understanding. Many attachment based intervention programs are based solely on the undistracted, undisrupted total focus of the parent on the child for that moment. This activity can, therefore, not only provide benefits to eating, but it can help a child build their own self confidence and grow trust in their caregivers.
Limit the experience to one or two new sensory components
The key to this game is to find different types of tea. There are so many varieties of un-caffeinated teas, and you can find them at any supermarket. Select a few different types and help your child pour hot (but not too hot, for safety!) water into various mugs. Drop a different tea bag into each mug and talk about the scent of each one as you do so. Allow the tea to brew and refer to the different teas by describing their colours while it does. Next, you can both experiment by tasting the different teas. Ask which one your child likes and which they do not like. You can add sugar and milk to see if they enjoy it more before or after the addition. Model the activity, but don't pressure them to partake until they are ready. Even if they would rather smell the teas, that is a step in the right direction!
Make tea time a routine event in your home. After experimenting a few times, allow your child to select the tea, prepare and serve it to the family. Once the routine is established, a small snack can be added to the game as well. This will give you the opportunity to provide different textures. A tiny morsel of a fruit or food can be presented on the serving plate, and the child can be encouraged to taste, smell, or touch the item without the pressure of having to eat it.
In time, you may very well notice that this activity begins to translate to other eating times. The child will remember trying a new food or drink and that it was fun to experience a something new, instead of feeling anxious about the situation.
Some tea flavours that your child might love: