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The Best Picky Eating and Food Aversion Discovery Exercise

picky eating food aversion tips

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There’s no doubt that picky eating is one of life’s great frustrations. What we would give to see our kiddos eat a few green leaves instead of the chicken nuggets they insist on having for every meal. A simple piece of fruit would be great!

Yet, all of us know that picky eating is far more complicated than a game of persuasion and making the veggies look like a Mickey Mouse face. When our kiddos struggle with sensory issues, autism, or other special needs, food preference can have deep roots that lead to bigger things than a love for chicken nuggets. 

The first step in tackling picky eating and food aversion is collecting as much information as you can about your child’s eating habits and patterns. In this post, let’s go on a hands-on food discovery exercise. We’re going to identify your child’s food victories, pain points, patterns, preferences, and tendencies. Basically, we’re becoming food detectives.

Become a Food Detective

It’s hard to solve a problem if we don’t know what caused the problem in the first place. If the exact cause can’t be pinpointed, it’s helpful to become detectives and gain as much information about the problem as possible before seeking a solution.

Food issues can stem from many places, which means that it will be hard to determine just one root cause. This means that we have to be food detectives and try to understand all of the factors that are contributing to our kiddos’ struggles with food.

To simplify the process, I like to take parents through a “who, what, when, where, why, how” exercise. By evaluating each of these components, we usually end up with enough information to start experimenting with solutions.

Who

Naturally, this is your kiddo. But, let’s broaden the circle and think about anyone your child interacts with, especially at mealtimes. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Does your kiddo eat alone or with friends at school?
  • If your kiddo eats with friends at school, do you know what they eat for lunch?
  • At home, does your kiddo eat more or less when alone vs. with family?
  • Do the types of food your kiddo eats differ depending on who they’re with?

Like it or not, social pressures can play a big role in how and what we eat. This is true for all of us, picky eaters or otherwise. If our friends like to order pizza and burgers, we’re less likely to order soups and salads. Think about whether your child’s eating behaviors change depending on who they eat with.

What

Depending on how picky your kiddo is, you may look at this question, answer with “Cheese-Its and apple juice,” and move on. Wait wait wait. Yes, this is an easy question on the surface, but we need to dig a little deeper into the characteristics of the food your child eats. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Are my kiddo’s chosen foods mostly sweet, salty, or bland? Are they crunchy, soft, creamy, hard, or grainy?
  • Are there colors of food that my child prefers?
  • What types of flavors does my kiddo gravitate towards? Do they like sour, spicy, intense, dull, or cheesy?
  • Does your child like hot, cold, or room temperature food?
  • Will your child eat messy foods?

Once you’ve listed as many characteristics of your child’s food as possible, look for similarities between them. Is there a clear preference for crunchy foods? Will your kiddo only eat clean, packaged foods? Make note of any trends you see, as this will be important later on.

Where

Similar to how our social surroundings can impact what we eat, so too can our environmental surroundings. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Is there a certain place where my child eats the most?
  • Is there a certain place where my child has tried new food in the past?
  • In general, where is my kiddo most comfortable?
  • How does my child respond to eating in a new place?

While we want to work towards eating a varied diet no matter the environment, for now, focus on where your child is the most comfortable and has shown success with eating in the past.

When

One of the biggest, secret frustrations can be getting the timing of eating wrong. If your child doesn’t want to eat in the first place, convincing them to do so when they aren’t even hungry will make it 100x harder. Hunger aside, introducing new foods to your kiddo at the times of day when they’re the most stressed, excited, or tired could be just as problematic. In the “when” section, we’re going to dig deeper into the times of day that are ideal for your child to eat. Here are some questions to ask:

  • What times of day is your kiddo most likely to initiate eating naturally, without prompting?
  • Are there times of day when eating is less of a struggle? More of a struggle?
  • Are there certain times of day when your kiddo asks for certain types of food?
  • Would your child eat all day if allowed?
  • Do you already have a basic eating routine set?

It can be challenging to develop healthy eating habits if we’re asking our kiddos to eat outside of the times that their bodies are telling them to eat. On the other hand, if their bodies are always telling them to eat, this is important to note as well. Either way, there may be an issue with properly timing meals.

Why

As we all know, eating is far more complicated than feeling a hunger pain and grabbing a snack. I can’t be the only one who grabs an extra cookie after dinner, even if I’m full. Eating is a biological necessity, but it’s also an emotional journey. We eat when we’re sad, happy, depressed, anxious, or angry. We may NOT eat during these times as well. Our kiddos have the same emotional responses to food that we do. Understanding how these emotions relate to the food they eat can be a big help in determining the cause of a picky eating. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Does my child eat more or less when they’re feeling extreme emotions like anger, sadness, and anxiety?
  • Which emotion causes the biggest change in type of food eaten and quantity of food eaten?
  • Does my kiddo turn to food when they’re bored?

Understanding the “why” behind your child’s eating patterns and behaviors can help you pinpoint the emotional root of their picky eating.

How

The way that we eat can impact what we eat. If you’ve ever had a tooth ache, you know that you didn’t choose steak for dinner that night. You also didn’t choose steak if you didn’t even have a clean butter knife in your kitchen. Everything from the way that we feel to the resources we have can impact how we eat and whether we want to eat. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Does my kiddo eat with utensils or with their hands?
  • If my child uses utensils, how well do they use them?
  • Does my kiddo have any physical limitations relating their mouth and chewing?
  • Has my child ever complained of pain while eating?
  • Does my kiddo need any adaptations to eat?

By analyzing how your child eats, you may notice stumbling blocks that are making the eating process more challenging.

I Know A LOT About My Child and Their Food. Now What?

Take your knowledge and run straight to your child’s occupational therapist or pediatrician! Changes to routines, diets, and strategies should be approved by a professional that knows your child’s unique situation.

Knowledge is power. You and your chosen medical professional can analyze any trends you may see and optimize them for success. Together, you can determine how to help your kiddo embrace more foods, adopt a regular eating routine, and make progress towards their eating goals.

While picky eating and food aversion are challenging, the more you know about how your kiddo behaves around food, the more you can help them. It’s only through understanding that we can identify all of the roots that lead to the problems our kiddos are facing with food. 

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