5 Tips to Encourage Adventurous Eating for Picky Eaters
Do you or your child have a hard time trying new foods? Does your dining room table feel like a battleground each night? Are you wracking your brain trying to figure out a dinner that meets everyone’s dietary needs? We understand that struggle and want to help!
Picky eating is a fairly common problem observed in childhood. Up to 39% of children are identified as picky eaters at one point or another. The majority (~58%) of picky eaters will recover after 2 years.(1) However, this leaves a significant population of people who continue to struggle with their picky eating for an extended period.
So, the question you may be asking is: how do you navigate picky eating?
There are different schools of thought on how to treat picky eating. What professionals agree on is the importance of exposure response prevention therapy around feared foods to expand dietary variety.
Exposure Response Prevention Therapy is an evidenced based approach where a person is systematically exposed to feared situations in a safe environment to learn a new response to that feared situation.
As a dietitian, I care about a person’s dietary variety. However, my approach is to create a life long change by encouraging an adventurous spirit around food so that a person is open to trying all sorts of foods to expand their variety. Here, I will share 5 tips to help those with picky eating tendencies move towards a more adventurous relationship with food.
Tip #1: Remain calm.
Our culture puts a lot of pressure to provide a perfect meal or snack. This brings added pressure to the eating experience and a person can sense that tension. If you are a caregiver or the person struggling with picky eating, try using some coping skills prior to the eating experience and remember you are doing the best you can.
When you are able to remain calm this creates a more positive eating environment and makes it easier to explore new foods.
Tip #2: Have realistic expectations.
The work of developing a more adventurous relationship with food is slow going and this is OKAY! If you can remember back to the story of The Tortoise and The Hare, the tortoise crosses the finish line with consistent yet slow effort and ultimately wins the race.
So how can we set realistic expectations?
Seek to understand the person’s experience first by asking them how they feel trying a new food
Acknowledge that eating a new food is the LAST STEP in the exposure process. Even plating a new food is exposure.
Know that it can take 20 or more times for someone to decide if they like or dislike a food. Offer exposure foods consistently without expectations around completion.
Tip #3: Create a “try” list.
This is a great way to try to understand the intensity of a food fear. Think of foods and food situations you want to practice or try that would make life easier to manage. This may include foods you recently stopped eating, common foods that your family serves, packable lunches, grab and go snacks, a food that used to be your favorite food, being able to eat at a restaurant, party foods, etc.
Try this activity: Write down that list of foods/food situations and then rank them from easiest to hardest. Then work with your support person to incorporate those foods starting with your easiest food.
Tip #4: Talk about food neutrally and objectively.
Remove negative food talk. No more “this food is gross.” Instead try describing the temperature, texture, taste, smell, mouth feel of a food, or the food preparation. This helps us understand the challenge and explore other ways of preparing food to make it more accepted.
Tip #5: Celebrate seemingly small victories.
“Did you plate a new food today? GREAT!”
“Did you lick that food or smell that food? Woah!”
“You took a bite – AMAZING!”
These are the seemingly small victories that are actually huge steps forward. By celebrating these steps we are celebrating the process and this helps change the relationship with food over time.
I hope you find these tips useful! Comment with any other tips you have for working towards an adventurous relationship with food.
-Carly Onopa, MS, RDN, LDN (NC), CEDS