20 ways to make food fun for a picky eater
Having a picky eater can suck the joy out of mealtimes for everyone. This works against us in many ways:
– We are not enjoying our food and so our fussy eater is not seeing us eating with joy, an important role modelling experience.
– Our child is not looking forward to food or eating and is therefore less likely to eat well.
– Mealtimes can become a trial rather than a pleasure.
Putting the fun and the joy back into eating is a big part of my focus as a picky eating advisor. The good news is that there are many ways we can do this.
I’ve come up with 20 of my favourites, but feel free to suggest any others you can think of.
20 ways we can make food fun
Before we dive into these though, a word of caution. The focus is on the fun, not the eating. The more relaxed and more enjoyment our child feels around food the more likely they are to eat. However, if they feel that we are doing something ‘fun’ in order to trick them into eating it, they will know, and it could backfire.
Serving food in new ways or engaging our child will be helpful for a picky eater, but not necessarily in the ‘do this so you can eat it’ sort of a way. The more selective and food anxious a child, the more positive experiences around food are valuable, but the less focus on the eating part the better.
I have seen all of these strategies be a win for picky eaters but naturally it’s important to look at the ones that are the best fit for your child’s age and stage – and your energy levels!!
1. Change of scenery. Often, especially for dinner, it has been become a place of failure around food. A move to a different place can reset expectations. With warmer weather it’s easy to move outside or go to the park. If the weather is not so kind, then a picnic on a rug in front of the fire can change things up.
2. Swapping meals around. One of the mum’s in my Creating Confident Eaters group said she’d like to rename dinner ‘big snack’. I LOVED this. Snacks are often easier than meals as they contain the favourite foods. As dinner can have a negative connotation then periodically doing a swap and having dinner foods during the day and breakfast or snack foods at night can be good.
3. Using different containers or serving equipment. Taking attention away from the eating and focusing it on the experience is always my advice. Curiosity about food is always a positive and so serving pasta in a Chinese take-away carton, or using tongs to grab carrots for the dip, for example is changing the emphasis. Chopsticks (they have children’s ones with ends that join), large spoons or tweezers can all be used. Or we can serve cereal in a cup or rice in the back of a truck or nuggets in the tea set.
4. Putting food on skewers or cocktail sticks can work well. Think 1970’s with cubes of cheese, slices of sausage and pineapple, or whichever foods will rock for our child. If we have a very hesitant eater perhaps their first step is helping build a skewer for us.
5. Serving food in ice cube trays or muffin tins can be fun. Fill the holes with different foods for our child to eat from. This can often be a low-key way to introduce something a little different or to re-offer foods that have fallen from the menu. It works well for snacks but can be just as easily used at dinner.
6. Create fun shapes. I love using pancakes and cookie cutters to create dinosaurs, flowers, cars etc. You can offer Vegemite, choc chips, raisins etc. for decoration. You can also use metal cookie cutters or knives to cut fruit and vegetables into stars or letters. I often cut spinach into patterns using scissors. Or there are specific cutters for sandwiches, for example.
7. Making pictures. Pastry and dough can easily be moulded so the top of a pie reveals a letter J for our child or maybe the letters of their favourite sports team or a wand or sword.
8. Food art. This does NOT have to be complicated or a full scene from Frozen or Spiderman. A simple face or a basic car, for example, will usually suffice. If we do the food art, we are changing up the food and hopefully generating new interest. If our child is making the art, they are interacting with the food (always a positive) and taking more of an interest. Plus, anytime we have an investment in a food, we are more likely to eat it – double points!
9. Play restaurant/café. We can pretend our child is in a fancy restaurant, or their favourite café and, depending on their age, take their order, place napkins on their lap, light candles etc. All of this goes to change the atmosphere and often will lead to delight. Alternatively, we can be the guests and our child can serve us. Think about how even a toddler can wash and rip lettuce leaves and then place in a bowl with some cherry tomatoes for a salad and then serve at the table.
10. Draw on foods. The simplest is happy faces or a name on the outside of a banana, mandarin or orange – even if our child doesn’t eat them. Actually, especially if our child doesn’t eat them, as then we’re encouraging interaction. You can send messages in the lunchbox! Or using icing or chocolate sauce on a cookie or a piece of cake to create a letter or a pattern.
11. Build your own. Having a prep station with lots of options to create a pizza, a taco, a sandwich or some pasta. Seeing different options, but being free to choose, can empower our child to pick something a little different. If you have done this previously and only the tried and tested are taken, this would be my expectation. These things often take time.
12. Have our child invent their own meal or snack. If it’s really weird, that’s OK. Just experimentation into something new can be valuable.
13. Get messy. Using food for messy play is a great way to foster interaction. Pictures from yoghurt or pudding, painting with spices, sticking our hands into jelly or squirting from pouches. Which is a fit for our child?
14. Add a ‘treaty’ ingredient. What would make a food rock for our child? Adding choc chips to pancakes or jam in the yoghurt, for example. Looking forward to eating is a positive way to support them to eat more comfortably and long-term, more widely.
15. Create the world’s smallest or largest. Having our child help us build the world’s smallest pizza or meatball or burger can be a great way to have them involved on a fun level. It can also be easier to contemplate eating something tiny. Conversely, we can create the world’s largest pancake for example and then share with the family.
16. Naming rights. We can have our child name their food. Maybe it’s Jamie’s jam or Mia’s mango smoothie. Any time our child feels investment, it’s a positive thing. It can also be really good fun and, depending on the age and stage some slightly risqué names can be hilarious ‘bottom burgers’ or ‘farty peas’, for example.
17. Fondue. Even adults love a bit of fondue and you don’t need a fancy machine either. It can be savoury with some cheese or pasta sauce (even ketchup is cool) or sweet with chocolate sauce, honey or softened peanut butter. Great fun as a family meal or dessert option.
18. A dipping tray. Having dips and things to put into them can be well-received. To take it to the next level, think cubes of apple on a stick to dip into yoghurt and then sprinkles or sausage on a stick to dip into ketchup and then grated cheese.
19. Away from the table there are lots of ways we can interact with food. Maybe it’s carrot bricks for the truck, spaghetti plaiting or threading sweetcorn to make a bracelet. We can build towers or if you’re super ambitious create a world map from peas (please send photos!).
20. Eat it like a… For young children eating the food like a dog, a dinosaur or a monster can be super fun, especially if initiated by the adults. Even for older children, parents eating it like a favourite character or idol can be fun or cringy but still get interest!
Spending time engaging our child around food in ways that do make it more fun and less routine is always valuable. We do not have to be a ‘clown’ at every meal, but dedicating some new energy can often support our picky eater to build a new level of enjoyment around food.
Judith, MA Cantab, Post Grad Dip Psychology, is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/