Behavioral Feeding Tips for Picky Eaters

Oftentimes behavioral feeding tips and techniques can be effective in getting picky eaters to eat more food, a greater variety of food and in a limited amount of time.

Although feeding picky eaters can take time and patience, eventually all of your hard work will be rewarded.

In general, mealtimes should not last longer than 35-40 minutes from the time your child sits to the time she gets up at the end of a meal. Oh, and they do need to sit for the entire meal. Standing, walking around or ignoring you while you are trying to feed your child is unacceptable, and steps need to be made to end that habit.

A feeding therapist can often be a great help in teaching your picky eater essential skills and behavioral feeding tips such as sitting in the chair and accepting certain foods. They can often help you as well, by teaching you different behavioral feeding tips and techniques to help make feeding your child a more pleasurable, less stressful experience.

If you do not have access to a feeding therapist, here are some behavioral feeding tips you can try at home to improve mealtime behaviors:

  1. Have your child sit in the same chair for each meal. This may need to be a different spot than what she’s used to. If mealtimes are very painful and filled with crying, screaming and spitting you may need a fresh start in a different setting. If, for example her current spot to eat is in a highchair in the kitchen, you may need to change it to a booster seat in the dining room. Once feeding behaviors improve you can move her back to the kitchen, but it needs to be done slowly and in a positive manner.
  2. Take out a timer and say to your child “It’s time to eat now. You will be eating for 25 (0r 30, or 35) minutes. As long as you take your bites and drink your drink your drinks, you can play with your toys and watch TV. If you don’t take your bites and drinks, the TV gets turned off and the TV goes away”. Once you say this, take your child’s finger and press the start button.
  3. Present each bite and say “Take your bite”. Once your child takes the bite, have a party! Say “Good taking your bite!” with enthusiasm. Let her know you are proud of her and she’s doing a great job. If she does not take her bite, turn off the TV and take away the toys until she takes the bite. Once she takes it, the TV goes back on and the toys are given back. You cannot act angry or frustrated with her, you just need to follow these directions and as soon as she takes the bite get enthusiastic. Picky eaters like reinforcement and do well with praise!
  4. Once the timer rings, the meal is finished. At that point it doesn’t matter if the meal was good or bad, if she finished all the food you wanted her to eat or if she didn’t eat any of it. The meal is finished until the next meal. After all, that’s what you told her at the beginning of the meal. To make her take just 5 more bites after the timer rings means you lied to her.

You do, however, always want to end the meal on a positive note. You never want to tell her you are disappointed in her or that she didn’t do a good job. Therefore, if you are stuck in a battle of wills and she has not taken a bite in 5 minutes when the timer rings, you can just wipe the spoon quickly across her mouth, whether it’s open or not, and say “Good taking your bite!” This serves both the purpose of letting her know you are proud of her and ending the meal on your terms. You can never let your child get the best of you!

A word on toys and TV at mealtimes...

In the steps above I mentioned toys and TV. I understand many of us do not like to feed our children in front of the TV, and mealtimes are supposed to be a special time with family and socialization. If you have a child who refuses to eat, however, you may need to spend a period of time with her watching TV and playing with toys during mealtimes. Having reinforcements available while your child is eating is a very important behavioral feeding tip. If you really do not feel comfortable with toys and TV, verbal praise can also be a good reinforcer.

To get the desired effect of her eating, certain DVD’s or TV shows should be reserved to watch only when feeding. The same goes for toys. She should have certain toys that she’s only allowed to play with while eating. The point is to reinforce her for eating. After all, it’s not something she likes to do, so she will do it much better if it’s paired with her favorite toy or TV show.

What if the timer rings and she hasn't eaten?

Now I know many of you are wondering what to do if you have a terrible meal where she didn’t eat much at all. You already know you can’t feed after the timer rings, so what can you do? If your child is already underweight or on the brink of being diagnosed with failure to thrive, and you are concerned about her missing a meal, it can certainly be a catch-22 for you, since if you give in and give her favorite food after the meal she will quickly learn she doesn’t need to eat during the meal, if she holds out long enough she will get what she wants. There are other behavioral feeding tips that address how to get nutrition into them while starting this process, please check back next week for more information.

You are walking a tightrope here, and it may be best to make an appointment with a dietitian or feeding therapist for recommendations more tailored to your situation, but often with practice these problems iron themselves out and you learn what works and what doesn’t.

For these behavioral feeding tips and techniques to work, you need to be consistent and continiously work at it. This is not a change that will happen overnight, however with time and persistance you will find yourself and your child having many more peaceful meals where she is eating more, a greater variety and in a shorter amount of time.