Thursday, February 12, 2009

Practical Help for Picky Eaters: Part V

While Chilly Burgers are one of my family's favorite desserts, that is not the primary reason why we make them. My children will say we make them because they taste great. I would say we make them as a means of building my picky eater's tolerance for mixed foods.

In general, picky eaters do not like mixed foods. By mixed foods, I mean foods with two or more different colors, textures, tastes, and/or ingredients combined in one dish or meal. Casseroles, spaghetti, and enchiladas are some examples of mixed foods. The more ingredients in the mixed food, the more complex and difficult it would be for a picky eater to accept. If you look at and analyze the foods your picky eater flat out denies eating, most likely they are a type of mixed food. The challenge for us as parents becomes how to help our children through that step, where they will eat and enjoy these mixed foods.

I have good news for you--there are ways to address this without power struggles, whining, complaining, and lots of uneaten food at the dinner table. First, do not require your kids to eat mixed foods until they will eat all the main ingredients in the mixed food separately. Second, take advantage of every opportunity you can to mix together foods that they do eat individually.


Q: What foods should we mix?

A: You can mix any and all foods that your child will currently eat individually. I would recommend making a list of all the foods your child will eat. Categorize them into Meats, Vegetables, Fruits, Dairy, Carbohydrates, and Desserts. There may be a little or a lot in any single category and that's okay. This is just noting the place your child is at today, and will we continue to build on that list each and every day.

Everything on this list is an option for mixing foods for your child.

Q: Okay. I have a list of individual foods my child will eat. Now what?

A: Pick one item off the list to start mixing with another item on your list. I started with two items that I knew I would have success with and there wouldn't be any talking back, complaining, or whining. Foods that I knew my picky eater would tolerate mixing no matter what.....dessert.

Let me give you an concrete example. My son likes vanilla ice cream. He likes chocolate chip cookies. The combination of vanilla ice cream and a chocolate chip cookie was his first mixed food he ate in its simplest form. I could have mixed vanilla ice cream with chocolate chips, bananas, strawberries, a brownie, or a peanut butter cookie because those items were also on his initial list. In fact, I did eventually use and mix all of them.

After determining what food item your picky eater will eat and enjoy and adding one additional ingredient to it, continue to mix it with one additional ingredient at a time. The most important thing you can do is ensure that any of the food choices used are items that are eaten individually with little to no resistance. I personally started with my child's favorite foods.

Q: How is offering dessert items helping my picky eater?

A: Parents often do not think of desserts as a source of building their child's repertoire of foods. I know I didn't. I wanted my picky eater to eat healthy, nutritious foods and that was my primary concern. My answer to that is this: Yes, healthy and nutritious foods are the end goal, but we need to use other foods to get there. The dessert is just a means to an end.

Foods that are mixed together are more complex and give some children grief. It will be different for each child as to why they don't like mixed foods. One child may eat some mixed foods, but can not tolerate his chicken to touch his peas on his plate. Another will not eat mixed foods at all because they are too visually stimulating. Others may not eat them because they don't like the feel of different textures in their mouth. Whatever the reason, we just need to mix foods, any foods, to get them through this step. That is the natural progression. If desserts will get us through this phase with the least amount of resistance, then let's embrace desserts!

Q: How often should I be offering my child mixed foods?

A: As frequently as you can. Obviously you are not going to be offering a banana split dessert to your child every evening; it's just not practical. Ideally, you want them to be exposed to mixed items as often as you can. Until you can start doing that with non-dessert items, use the opportunity with dessert items and don't feel guilty about it. Never just offer them a cookie or cake or dessert item alone. Offer a couple items that mix well together.

The same goes for your child if his favorite foods are carbohydrates. Make different varieties of "Trail Mix" with the various types of dried foods your child enjoys. Mix crackers with cereals, cookies, and dried fruits. Do it daily if possible.

Q: How do I transition from one food to another?

A: One ingredient at a time. As long as you keep an updated list of all the foods your child will eat individually, just pick another one from the list and play with it.

Q: Besides dessert items, how can I offer my child mixed foods?

A: Go back to your list of foods that your child eats. The initial starting place would be either desserts or dried carbohydrates, or vise versa, followed by fruits or vegetables, depending on your child. Mix items in the same category together first; they offer the least amount of resistance. Fruit with fruit. Carbohydrates with carbohydrates. Vegetables with vegetables. After that, I would recommend mixing across categories. Vegetables with carbohydrates (i.e., noodles, rice) Fruit with dairy (i.e., yogurt). Vegetable with dairy (i.e., cheese).

After mixing two items together successfully, begin to add a third. There is no real rhyme or reason to how you do this. Mix three fruits. Mix three vegetables. Mix two fruits and a dairy. Mix two vegetables into noodles.

The last category to mix in would be meats. From my personal experience and from what I hear on a regular basis from other parents, meats are the most problematic for picky eaters to eat and enjoy.


My son had a significant feeding problem and was not simply a picky eater, but had underlying medical problems causing the feeding issues. After working through his medical problems, we noticed more tolerance in foods. However, addressing his issues with mixed foods provided an even greater and more significant improvement. For the child who once only ate four to five foods, he is now eating and enjoying not only a good variety of healthy and nutritious whole foods, but also a larger and ever expanding variety of mixed foods. He is even eating complex mixed foods that incorporate more than 5 main ingredients (i.e., a meat, a carbohydrate, and three vegetables). Now that is progress!

I am confidant, extremely confidant, that your child can be eating and enjoying more foods too!

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