It’s possible that many people don’t think about “relationships” when it comes to food, let alone the importance of this relationship. However, building a positive relationship with food is a pivotal step when it comes to trying new foods, expanding our food repertoire and having stress-free, enjoyable mealtimes. It starts with giving the child the power and autonomy to make choices during mealtimes and taking some of the pressure off! These 5 tips can help build a healthier relationship with food.
1. Do not force or trick!
We cannot stress this one enough! When it comes to exploring and trying new foods, tricking and forcing will only create a negative outcome. Instead of tricking, try getting your child involved in the cooking/preparation process to create a sense of autonomy with their meals and food creations. Don’t force your child to eat something, instead leave it on their plate and let them decide if they want to try it that day…or maybe another day!
As occupational therapists, we often use what we like to call a “desensitization method” when it comes to exploring new foods and mealtimes. This method is a slow and gradual approach to introducing new foods which usually starts with a new food on a separate plate, away from the child, but within eye gaze. After many exposures, comfortability with the food increases, and it may make it onto the child’s plate, maybe into their hand, and eventually into their mouths! By giving children the autonomy and a choice of when to engage with the food and to what degree, we take out the stress and negative emotions tied to the novel food.
3. Pair foods together
It is helpful to offer a non-preferred or novel food with a preferred or “comfortable” food at mealtimes. This way, the child has the choice to interact with the non-preferred food if they would like to during that “exposure”, but they also have another comfortable and safe food option that they are familiar with to eat. By doing this, the child does not feel forced to eat something new unless they choose to and feels safe that they have a “comfortable” food option in case they do not like the new food.
4. Play with food!
We encourage messy food play to build positive food relationships! By engaging in play with food outside of mealtimes (i.e., drawing in yogurt, cutting fruits/veggies into fun shapes, building/stacking with food), it takes the stress out and adds the fun in to engaging with foods that a child may not typically explore. This is a huge step in the right direction to eventually accepting new foods into a diet repertoire. After many opportunities for play with novel and/or non-preferred foods, a child may be more open to licking, biting, or eating it!
5. Use fun utensils and “tools” during mealtime
By using different utensils and feeding “tools” during mealtime, it could increase the motivation to engage with and try new foods. Plus, by using utensils, they may not have to touch the new food with their hands right away. Here are some of our favorites from Amazon:
Try to remember that building a positive relationship with new foods and accepting new foods into a diet repertoire is typically a slow progression. Giving children the time they need to explore, play, and have fun with new foods will lead to ultimate success and longevity with openness to trying and accepting new foods!