Get Your Child Involved with Food

Written by Michelle Brown

For highly picky and resistant eaters, there are lots of activities that you can do to get your child involved with food before the meal hits the table.

The more your child is involved with pre-meal activities, the easier it will be for him/her to accept being around food, particularly non-preferred foods.

Here are seven tips on how to make this happen:

Plan some meals together 

Let your child decide on some of the dinners during the week. You might get more buy in and willingness to try new foods if you eat some of your child’s preferences (chicken nuggets and mac and cheese!). Subsequently, he/she should eat your preferences.

Grocery shopping 

Take your child with you to the grocery store when possible. Go at a time that isn’t super busy and go to a small store so it’s not over-stimulating for your child. Have your child pick out some of the food and then later when you are eating it you can talk this food.

Talk about why you eat 

Explain to your child why we eat and why we choose to eat a variety of healthy foods. This can be especially beneficial with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder as these kids can be extremely detailed focused.  Providing specific information will help them understand why it’s important to eat different foods and this might be enough to convince your child to try something new. 

Help prepare food 

Having your child touch and smell foods during preparation is a big step towards feeling comfortable with eating them. Use this time to explore food properties as this will help take the fear out of non-preferred foods. If your child can tell you what it is about a food they like or don’t like, ask them! You might find out a different way to prepare the food that he/she can tolerate.

Set the table 

Part of the meal is getting out what we need for eating and setting the table. Usually a child can safely perform aspects of setting the table such as putting out place mats, napkins and cutlery. It also requires your child to move so if your child is a wiggly kid then this movement prior to sitting might assist with improved sitting tolerance during the meal.

Serve the food 

Helping serve food will get your child interacting with food from a safe distance as they can use a utensil and will not have to actually touch the food.

Play with food 

If your child is particularly sensitive to certain foods, taking time outside mealtime to play and explore foods works well. In this situation you are focusing on touching and smelling the foods. You can pretend to feed your child’s favourite stuffed animal. You can buy puppets that actually appear like they are eating food.  Start with pretend or play foods and then move into real foods. Try loading the dump truck with crackers, making people out of different foods or playing tea party. If your child loves to seek sensations through touch, you can have a blast playing with foods finger-painting style! Smear and squish everything on a cookie sheet, make colours and different textures by adding graham cracker crumbs and berries to chocolate pudding, then see what else you can add in. Or, make swirl designs with French fries and ketchup, celery and cheese spread, or pasta and sauce. If your child is not yet ready to finger food paint, have him/her use a paint brush or a toy car to drive around the tray. The options are virtually limitless. Use your imagination and prepare yourself, as things might get messy!

Once comfort starts to build...

Gradually, as your child is demonstrating readiness, start to taste and eat the food.  Offer tiny amounts at first, as small as a crumb, if that is all your child can tolerate.  

Never push or force your child to touch, smell or eat something they don’t want. 

You can demonstrate touching, smelling and eating all you want!  You want your child to participate when they are ready.  

The main point of the pre-meal activities is to get your child comfortable around food.

Increasing your child's tolerance to be around new food is key to eventually encouraging your child to try new foods.  This process can be very slow as you likely well know.  However, gradual exposure in super fun and no pressure to eat activities can speed up the process and help develop other life skills along the way!  It's win-win!  Be patient, have no expectations for your child to eat during these pre-meal activities, and you might be surprised at what comes next!

Your Action

  •  Start doing three pre-meal activities with your child.
  •  Incorporate playing with food into playtime.

Good luck!  And as always, be the hero you are meant to be!

Courtesy photo by Angie Garrett

Author: Michelle Brown
Michelle Brown is an occupational therapist and has been helping people since 1996.

You can find out more about Michelle Brown here:

And for more information on eating challenges, check out my book, The Eating Handbook for Children with Autism, 2nd Edition available on Amazon.

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