I learned the power of offering choices in my first job out of college. I worked in a special needs classroom where we weren’t allowed to use the word ‘no’. What do you do? I learned to redirect unsafe situations by saying, ‘that’s not a choice,’ instead of ‘no,’ then offer 2 appropriate, safe choices.
This tool of offering choices stuck with me and became one of my most leaned-on tricks through grad school and years after working as a speech therapist. I have gone entire therapy sessions without giving one direction and offering every next step in the form of a choice. Because I really don’t have time to argue (or be a hard-ass) about what we’re going to do next–We have way too much to learn in that short therapy time!
This is not to say choices always work. There are those tantrums that will happen no matter what. The meltdowns where I’ve spent entire sessions in the hall. But when I’m in a situation with a 50/50 chance of defiance/tantrum vs. participation I’ve found choices are my best way to tilt it toward participation.
It may seem that if you offer a choice you’re giving up control of a situation, but it’s exactly the opposite. When you offer choices, rather than telling kids what to do, you’re letting them pick from options that are both ok with you, that don’t really affect the outcome you’re trying to accomplish.
So you don’t offer choices about the big stuff (like not to do an activity at all). But you could give a choice of activity, then a choice of what to do first. Then give a choice of who should turn the water on. Then, ‘Do you want this bowl or this bowl?’ ‘Big spoon or little spoon?’ ‘Do you want to pour or stir?’ and on and on (you can make pretty much every decision into a choice!). Soon your picky eater is completely involved and is in control. If they offer another option that’s ok with you, that’s great! Let them feel ownership of the activity. Now they’re participating!
Choices at meals and snacks are also extremely helpful and can often be a way to get out of making different meals for picky eaters. By offering choices of how your child wants the ingredients in dinner, you may be able to deconstruct the meal so that your picky eater gets a lot of the same foods as the rest of the family, just in a different way. Raw carrots instead of cooked, shredded instead of circles etc…
You can also learn a lot about your child’s eating by offering 2 choices at a time. When your child makes choices you get solid information about what they like, how they like it and sometimes why they like or don’t like it. So useful!
I will say that it’s really important to limit each choice to 2 options. This keeps it manageable. When there are too many choices, the options can feel overwhelming and it’s harder to pick just one.
If food-times are sensitive times, practice offering choices during other times in the day and see how it works. If you’re stuck, here are some great examples to try from Love And Logic. Once you feel comfortable, try offering some choices around food and see how your child responds.
Enjoy! Happy food play (your way and your child’s way ;)!