We love this topic because this is often where we see parents have the biggest “AHA!” moments in understanding their child’s eating habits.

Children who are picky eaters often do or don’t eat foods based on one or more of the following characteristics: shape, color, texture, flavor, and smell. 

When we hear parents say things like this, we immediately put on our food detective hats:

“My child only eats orange foods.”

“My child won’t eat soft foods.”

“My child only eats salty or bland foods.”

But food patterns can also be at play when we hear parents say things like:

“My child doesn’t eat vegetables.”

“My child will not eat meat.”

“My child only likes snacks or processed foods.”

It can be so frustrating and confusing! We find making sense of why your kiddos might be refusing certain foods helps parents feel empowered to support their child in expanding their diet. And empowered parents are unstoppable!

Below we will list some of the most common food patterns we see, and some questions to help you start to investigate if your child has any patterns affecting their eating. Once we have this information, we can help them to gradually get unstuck from these habits, as well as use their preferences to our advantage when introducing new foods. 

SHAPE:

Does your child:

  • Prefer round foods?
  • Prefer foods that have clean edges?
  • Prefer one shape of chicken nuggets, cereal, or noodle?
  • Become upset or refuse if a food breaks or is cut in half
  • Prefer processed foods that have consistent shapes? (can also be flavor pattern)

If so:

  • Work on changing shape of preferred foods with child watching or involved
    • Encourage child to use cookie cutters or simply cut while they are watching
    • Can put back together like a puzzle, to show the full item, which sometimes helps ease some anxiety initially
  • Offer new foods in preferred shapes to help them feel comfortable exploring new foods 
    • Example: if a child likes round shapes, use a round cookie cutter or melon baller to make new/ non-preferred foods into a preferred shape.  It can also help to offer new foods that are round (baby potatoes, tomatoes, blueberries). 

COLOR

Does your child:

  • Prefer certain color foods?
  • Refuse certain color foods?
  • Refuse foods that have mixed colors (such as dark seeds in light crackers)?
  • Refuse preferred foods in new colors (such as rainbow goldfish)?
  • Eat certain colored purees out of pouches but not out of a bowl? (This may also be related to smell)

If so:

  • Try using a preferred food that comes in several colors to expand color acceptance. Rainbow goldfish and veggie sticks/chips work well for this. 
  • Add a small amount of pigmented fruit juice or food coloring to applesauce or yogurt with the child watching and involved in stirring. They may be more accepting when they know it is the same food as their preferred item.
  • When initially trying foods with new colors, try to offer foods they are likely to enjoy if/when tasted. That way, they won’t develop a negative association when they are just starting to eat foods of that color.
  • If they accept any fruits or snack foods of a particular color (example green veggie sticks), offer those alongside a green vegetable that is a non-preferred food. 

TEXTURE

Does your child:

  • Decide whether to eat foods after “testing” them by touching with hands?
  • Strongly prefer or avoid foods that make a crunching sound?
  • Avoid foods that have mixed textures (many soups, yogurt with chunks)?
  • Avoid “wet” or “slimy” foods?
  • Refuse to eat chewy foods? (can also be related to difficulty with chewing itself)
  • Eat purees out of a pouch but not when can see/touch in a bowl?(can also be due to color or smell)

If so: 

  • Increase opportunities for messy play outside of mealtimes. Non-food options include shaving cream, slime, water beads, finger paint. Food-options include whipped cream, drawing with pudding, dry rice/bean bins, using cut vegetables as paint stamps. 

FLAVOR

Does your child:

  • Only like one brand/flavor of pasta sauce, apple sauce, pouch, mac and cheese, etc.?
  • Strongly prefer processed foods that have consistent flavor profiles (ex: mac and cheese, frozen nuggets)?
  • Refuse preferred foods if you add light-moderate seasonings?
  • Taste new foods with the tip of their tongue, then refuse?
  • Only eat bland, salty, or sweet foods?

If so:

  • Add very small amounts of new seasoning to preferred foods
  • Make preferred foods (for example mac n cheese or pancake mix) with slightly varied ingredients. Add more or less of an ingredient or flavor packet.
  • Encourage smelling and interacting with foods prior to tasting, as they may be refusing foods because the flavor was unexpected
  •  Combine preferred foods together to create novel flavor profiles (for example: adding spread such as Nutella® to a pancake).

SMELL

Does your child:

  • Bring things toward their face and then refuse?
  • Eat foods out of pouches but not off of the spoon? 

If so:

  • Increase scented messy play to start to expose your child to more smells (ex: jello play dough, scented crayons, painting with pouches/pudding). 
  • Talk about the smell and compare to other things they like. “Oh it smells sweet like a [preferred sweet food].”

We hope this inspires you to become a food detective with your child and think about what patterns may be affecting their eating. These strategies can be amazingly powerful for many little ones! Most importantly, have fun with the process and get creative!

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