Power over Picky Eating, Understanding the Steps to Eating

Why won’t my child eat vegetables or meat? The challenges of picky eating can easily leave you wondering if there is a secret potion or magic wand that successful parents have.

There is no magic, but you can adopt an approach that will pretty much give you Merlin status overnight. What is it, you ask? It’s play! But not just getting messy with food.

Play that is strategically targeted at helping your child move up the steps to feeding and overcome picky eating.

Before we talk about how to play, we must first understand the steps to feeding. The steps to feeding are essential to understanding why your child resists trying new foods.

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Why do the steps to Eating matter?

You probably think that eating (or feeding) is the chewing and swallowing food. This is the finish line. The steps to eating are part of journey needed to successfully try new foods.

While some children leap up the steps to feeding, this is often not the case. For specific foods (yes, meat and vegetables), the steps to feeding may be taken much more slowly, with movement up and down as your child learns to accept the new food.

For some children, the sensory experience of eating including texture, taste and visual appearance of food require careful attention to these steps.

Isn’t exposure to new foods the key step?

You’ve probably heard the statement that it will take your child 10-20 exposures to a food before she will try it (or eat it). The concept of exposure is important, as a child can’t learn to like a food that isn’t offered.  However, simply focusing on exposure doesn’t tell the whole story. The key effect of exposure is helping your child move up the steps to feeding.

The Steps to Eating Explained

Eating is much more than chewing and swallowing. It involves physical skills, nerves and sensory experiences. When we take a moment and understand the journey involved in developing feeding skills, we can better help our child succeed. 

Tolerates – The steps to eating begins when your child accepts the food in her environment. This means that the food can be placed on the table, on place mat near plate, and eventually on her plate.

When you place a food on your child’s plate and she hasn’t yet reached comfort with this food, you immediately see the result which can be crying, throwing the food or shoving the plate on floor.

Interacts – The next major step toward feeding is interacting with a food. This includes using another object (usually a food or utensil) to touch a food.

Assisting with serving or preparing foods is an example. Note that this step doesn’t include touching a food with her fingers or hands. It is necessary to first become comfortable interacting at a distance (using another object).

Touch/Smell – Using a hand or finger to touch or smell food from a utensil or plate. It may also be touching the food a part of the body (not hands).

Having a physical interaction with the food requires a significant level or comfort interacting with the food.

Taste – Food begins to interact with the mouth and may include licking or touching it to the teeth. A bite may be taken and then spit out. 

This step may result in steps back down, as a child may be surprised by the sensory experience. A decreased tolerance to the food or comfort interacting may be occur.

Eating – The final step includes biting, chewing and swallowing pieces of the food independently.  This step may be achieved transiently with up and down movement for the same food.

It is normal for children to have variable acceptance of a food even once they have started eating it.

Using the Steps to Feeding                                                  

When feeding your child, you should be constantly evaluating her position on the steps for each food. This is particularly important for new foods or foods that are typically less tolerated, such as meat or vegetables.

By watching your child’s response, you can determine where she is on the steps to eating and ensure that you are not creating pressure (and causing resistance) with your approach.

What Does Play Have to Do with Eating?

Play is the language your young child understands best. She is curious about the world around her and has a blossoming sense of imagination.

Eating and feeding through the eyes of a child is an extension of play. For parents, the goal is eating. This disconnect can create what is often described as picky eating behaviors.

Play allows you to engage your child where she is on the steps to feeding. By leveraging natural curiosity and using food as part of play scheme, you can move her up the steps. It is a dance with you keenly evaluating her comfort level and engagement with the play scheme.

It is important to remember that food play doesn’t have to be a food fight or even especially messy. Food play leverages curiosity to reduce resistance to a new food and move your child up the steps to eating.

Food Play Example

In this video, you will see an example of using food play to move up the steps to feeding.

This play scheme centers around sweet potato soup, a new and non-preferred food. It is made with curry, cinnamon and has very bright orange color. Expecting a child to take a bite of a new and unfamiliar food is unrealistic and would likely result in both resistance and very little success.

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Step 1: Offered carrot sticks (a preferred food) while finishing heating the soup.

Step 2: Initiated the play scheme. Started using a carrot stick as a paintbrush to draw letters on a plate. He joined in and started playing a favorite game that is usually done with his crayons. This familiar activity reduced his apprehension about the new food.

Note that in this video, he is not comfortable with the food yet. He wasn’t interested in sitting in his seat and is approaching the play from a distance. Also, note the reaction when he realizes that some soup is on his shirt. This moved him from interacts to touches on the steps to eating, and you can see he was uncomfortable with this jump. I offered some reassurance and let him know we would wipe it off.

Step 2: Brought pasta pieces (a preferred food) to table. Transitioned to play scheme that involved trying to hide the pasta pieces. This very simple game was highly effective, and you can see how much more comfortable he now is with the food and is sitting comfortably in his chair. The food is close enough he is getting to smell the soup.

This play scheme didn’t result in a bite being taken of the soup, however, he successfully moved up the steps to feeding from tolerating all the way to touch and smell. For the first time exposed to the food, this is significant progress.

With subsequent exposures and careful attention to his response and position on steps, he will successfully try this food.

Picky Eating and the Power of Play

Using play eliminates the need to bribe, reward or pressure your child to try the food. Play leverages natural curiosity and is developmentally appropriate.

Exposing your child to new foods using play schemes that are tailored to their current position on the steps to eating is highly effective. This approach to helping picky eaters is called play-based feeding therapy.

A pediatric dietitian with advanced skills in creating and implementing play schemes can help support you in successfully implementing this approach.

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