Pretending is a way kids practice: practice skills, practice language, practice trying out what they see around them. Many picky eaters aren’t comfortable trying new foods in real time when they’re presented at snacks and meals. Pretending with play food gives them a chance to practice the words they’ve learned about food, practice the routines that go along with food prep and practice eating.
Pretend to take food out of a fridge, make something delicious, serve it and eat it. Ham it up! Add some silly phrases, so when it’s time to use these skills at the table, your picky eater has some fun associated with mealtime routines, then show them how the fun phrases can be used with real food too: Yummmmm DEEElicious!!
2. Read books about food
Books and stories teach us about the world. The ideas in books shape our ideas. We identify with characters in books. We learn through their experiences. When picky eaters read about characters in books learning about foods and eating foods, they learn a lot, too!
Books can also provide a base of understanding about a food. If a child doesn’t know about watermelon and you read the book The Watermelon Seed before picking seeds out of a slice of watermelon, your child will already know a lot about watermelons when he starts the activity. And knowing about something helps us become more comfortable with it!
3. Sensory play activities
What we feel or think we’re going to feel has a huge influence on our behavior. When sensations are associated with pain, stress or fear we want to avoid them. I don’t want to touch a hot stove because I know I’ll get burned.
Every experience we have creates and reinforces these pathways in our brains. If kids have gotten sick or felt pain due to eating , they learn to restrict their diets to the few foods that are the least likely to get them sick. They become extremely hesitant to try new foods because their brains have to go through evaluating if this new food might make them feel sick or hurt. The consequences of trying a new food are way scarier than ‘they may not like it’.
We have a lot of nerve endings in our hands and fingers. Kids learn a lot about what is safe and pleasurable by testing it with their hands. During sensory play activities, picky eaters learn to touch different textures and associate positive experiences with feeling different textures and sensations. When running their hands through water or a bin of dried rice and beans becomes a positive experience, this leads to more curiosity and willingness to touch new textures of foods as well.
Building this kind of comfort level doesn’t happen overnight, but over time, expanding a picky eater’s tolerance to touching different textures will help them try a wider variety of foods.
4. Scooping and pouring activities
It can be scary to touch something new, but if we touch it with a spoon, we can learn something about it without having to touch it. Scooping and pouring activities allow a picky eater to learn about how different textures move while keeping their hands clean. Play with a variety of spoons and pitchers with sand, water, or real foods. As you’re prepping dinner, give your picky eater some mashed potatoes or some yogurt to scoop from one bowl to another. Bring some spoons and cups into the bath and practice scooping and pouring there.
Often picky eaters don’t have the same skills with utensils as other children their age.These activities are great practice for using utensils and pouring from pitchers. Picky eaters get to learn about the flow of foods, what keeps food on a spoon and what makes it fall off without having the pressure of eating a meal and being asked to bring some of those spoonfuls to their mouth!
5. Core strengthening play
It seems so simple, to sit down and eat a meal, but if you have trouble holding yourself up for half an hour, it’s really difficult! It takes a lot of effort to hold our bodies upright in good position to eat. Part of what gives us stability and balance to eat is a solid base, something to rest our feet on. Toddlers need a foot-plate on a high chair, somewhere to press their feet. Kids and adults eat best when our feet can touch the floor to provide that stable base.
Our core muscles are crucial for providing stability. Jungle gym play, anything where kids are sitting, standing, reaching, climbing is good for working their core muscles and building endurance for all activities, including meals!
Enjoy all of these ways to play because they’re fun and because they can help your child become a more adventurous eater, too!