Beyond Mac and Cheese: Expanding Food Choices

By Dr. Kayla Hartt

Mealtime can feel like a struggle for many families with young children. The requirement for children to sit for an extended period, chew food safely, and eat various healthy foods is a lot to ask. Not to mention the parent jobs of meal planning, preparation and cooking, getting the kids to the table while the food is still hot, and clean-up. It can be emotional and frustrating when our little ones refuse to eat the food we prepare for them. Here are some ideas to make mealtime smoother, all while promoting trying new foods:
Play. Let your child play with their food. When they feel a juicy kiwi or dip a cracker into hummus, they use their sensory systems to explore that food. Set up an opportunity for them to paint with yogurt or stack blocks of melon. When children can touch and smell without pressure, they are more likely to taste it too.

Presentation matters. A plate piled high with broccoli solicits an immediate 'no' for many children who are still learning to enjoy broccoli. However, pairing it with a food they like and in a small quantity (think, one or two small florets) is more likely to have a positive outcome. Using tools like a skewer or cutting out shapes can be fun and encourage your child to touch and interact with the food, which is a precursor to eating it.
Change one thing at a time. You know your child's food preferences better than anyone. Think about their favorite food and try to modify it in a way that feels safe to them by changing just one thing at a time. It could be the texture of the food, the color, or the cooking method. Do they love baby carrots? Try rainbow carrots or sweet potatoes. If they like scrambled eggs at breakfast, present them with half of a hard-boiled egg for a snack.
Prepare meals together. Get your child involved in cooking a family meal. Plan something delicious together, grocery shop, mix, prep, and plate. This is a great way to give children a positive experience around food. Meal prep is a pressure-free way to see, touch, smell, and maybe even taste new foods.
Represent. Represent. Represent. We can't expect children to taste and then love a new food the first time they see it. However, the repeated exposures help children get comfortable having the food on their plate. If the family is eating salad and you know that your child won't try it, resist the urge to skip over their plate. Provide a tiny portion without the expectation to eat it. One day they'll likely give it a try.

Try food that is new to you. This is a great way to gain insight into the whole process and model the behavior you want to see. Older children will appreciate your effort. Be vulnerable, show your curiosity and explore the food with your sight, touch, and smell. Your curiosity about the food may even interest the child at your table.

Promoting a variety of healthy foods is a challenge for many families of young children. By removing some of the pressure, letting your child take control, and creating a positive atmosphere around mealtime, you can provide your child with an excellent opportunity for growth.

Dr. Kayla Hartt is an occupational therapist, writer, and educator. She has a private practice and works with children on sensory processing skills, fine motor development, handwriting, and more. She lives in Windham with her husband and two-year-old daughter.