Many children are set on eating the same few foods, such as chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, and hot dogs. Most parents with children who eat the same few foods over and over again want their children to increase the variety of foods in their diet. The big question is how to introduce new foods into your child’s diet without them refusing to eat. An important component of helping your child eat more foods is allowing them to participate in all aspects of the mealtime process.
6 tips to help increase food variety through meal preparation:
- Involve your child in the grocery shopping: Bring your child to the grocery store and allow him to explore some of the food options. Allow your child to pick out a few new foods with the intention of letting him help you prepare and try the foods for dinner. Sometimes children don’t know where their food comes from, but if you give them the opportunity to go with you and pick out something to eat, they may be more willing to try it.
- Involve your child in the food-making process: This includes having your child open containers, throw them away, pour the ingredients into a pot or bowl, and stir the contents. It is especially important that you have your child help make the food that she picked out from the grocery store. This will make the process more fun and help your child understand how her food comes packaged. This will also help your child learn how food feels and smells when it is uncooked too.
- Have your child help set the table: This is one more step of the eating process that should be explored. The purpose of this is to have your child go through each step in the mealtime routine so they know everything that goes into preparing a meal.
- Allow your child to play with his food at the dinner table: You may have been taught that playing with your food is a “no-no,” but allowing your child to play with his food will let him explore before trying it. Research shows that a child must develop an idea in their mind about how a food will taste and what it will do in his mouth before accepting it. Therefore, your child needs to know what the food smells, feels, and looks like before putting it in their mouth. This helps your child “warm-up” to the food and understand all of its properties before finally eating it. If you force your child to try something new by shoving it in their mouth, they may instantly reject it if it is different than they expect. Then, they will likely not accept that food into their diet. They may also be less trusting of you when you make a new food, for fear that it will be forced upon them.
- Eat family style at the table: By having everyone pass around and eat the same food, you will be providing an opportunity to model good eating habits for your child.
- Involve your child in the cleanup process: Have your child help take the dishes to the sink, put leftovers in containers, and throw away any scraps to conclude the mealtime process.
By engaging your child in each step of the mealtime routine, they will understand where food comes from and how it is prepared. This will eventually lead to your child’s acceptance of new foods and feeling of accomplishment from helping make dinner. Your child may not initially try all the new foods that are presented, but with repetition they may become more open to trying new foods.
It is important to note, however, that some children have more severe sensitivities or oral-motor issues that may be impacting their eating habits. If they are extremely limited in the number and variety of foods they will eat, a consultation with a feeding specialist (occupational therapist or speech therapist) may be indicated. Signs that your child may need further intervention include gagging at the sight of food or while eating or exclusion of an entire food group or certain textures.