Every child learns to eat at different rates. Some may not need all the steps and are happy to dive in and try eating whereas others are more sceptical and need to be more comfortable with foods first before putting them in their mouths.
It is perfectly normal for toddlers to go through a fussy eating stage, refuse foods or even taste new foods (1). As parents we worry that they are not eating enough or getting the right nutrition.
If you have tried various methods to get your child to eat to not much success then this information on the 6 steps to eating (2) will help you to understand how children learn to eat and the steps needed first. It is often overlooked and taken for granted that kids will just put food in their mouths.
What are the steps to eating?
Here I will tell you about the six steps to eating.
This can be broken down into even more steps (up to about 25 in some children) depending on their fussiness and if other sensory issues are going on.
- Tolerate – this means for example, being in the same room as the food or having the food in front of you at the table or near to you.
- Interact – you can interact with a food by using a utensil to move it around on a plate or try picking it up. Food preparation methods like chopping, with a knife or scooping up food with a spoon are great ways to interact with the food without touching it.
If your child is not ready to commit to touching a food then they could start off with interacting from a distance and build it up to moving closer.
- Smell – can take place in the same room, close to the food or further away.
- Touch – this doesn’t have to be just with the mouth but could be a finger, hand, part of hand, lips, nose, teeth or tip of tongue, cheek.
- Taste – can be just a tiny amount and your child doesn’t have to swallow it unless they want to. They could just lick it, or put it in their mouth and spit it out. Sometimes even partly swallow it.
- Eat – this step needs to actually put the food into the mouth and chew.
Adapted from Steps to Eating by Kay Toomey, PhD
Examples of each of the steps to eating
- Tolerate – they can be in the same room as the food and watch you prepare a meal or snack. Simply describe the food to them. You could move the food from a long distance and make it closer until they are happy and can tolerate it. Also make it fun for them by cutting food into fun shapes and showing them.
- Interact – they could interact by serving themselves at meal times. This is also great for only taking as much as they need.
Helping in the kitchen with exciting utensils like whisking or scooping or scraping bowls, measuring or pouring liquids are great examples.
- Smell – You could invent a smelling game with different solid and liquid foods. Trying to guess the food or simply describing the smell whilst blindfolded makes this a fun activity to introduce new foods.
Other ways could be having them in the kitchen while your preparing so they can smell the food or get them to help with preparation like stirring food whilst cooking and smelling it, exaggerate smelling food saying (umm delicious).
- Touch – touching with hands or fingers (whichever they are comfortable with), such as squeezing, massaging, rolling dough and kneading. Making bread dough or salt dough is often a good one to start with or baking biscuits whereby they can be involved in forming a dough and rolling it out.
Other ways could be building with food, painting with food, kissing foods, making vehicles with foods (3).
- Taste – touching with tongue, taking a lick are great ways to build up to putting the food in the mouth. You could introduce this in messy play with foods like yoghurt and doing some yoghurt painting with fingers and get them to try licking it off fingers. Also soft fruits like raspberries and other berries whereby the juice easily gets on the hands may encourage them to try licking a little off.
Other ways could be kissing foods, listening to the sounds of chewing or biting a piece off.
- Eat – putting the food, even a tiny amount in the mouth. It could be spat out but its a start to get them used to the mouthfeel, texture and taste. You never know they may like it and swallow it.
How do I make food fun and encourage them to eat?
- Make the environment as relaxed as possible to ease any stress.
- Try making food fun away from mealtimes, so they are more relaxed and gaining some steps to eating.
- Let them serve themselves/take the lead at mealtimes.
- Involve them in the kitchen, garden etc
- Have regular messy play times.
Examples of how to make food fun
- Edible stamp art using ice cream cones onto coloured yoghurt.
- Treasure map pancakes – either making your own pancakes or you could buy some and decorate using edible pens and fruit.
- Edible rainbows with fruit pieces or cereals to make bracelets
- Breading painting
- Flower cutter sandwiches
- Crackers or bread with cheese and veggies for faces
What do you do when your child refuses to eat?
If you have been through all the steps to eating and finding they are still refusing to eat a lot of foods then it may be they are still learning to accept foods and not ready to commit to eating just yet.
For some children it can take many years to eat more foods and they may have to go through each step a number of times with each food before moving to the next step. If they are refusing to eat then it may just be time and more steps required.
What else can I do?
You could use the Division of responsibility model (4). This is where the responsibility of feeding is divided into two roles; the parents and the child’s roles.
The parents’ role is to decide what to feed the child, where and when.
The child’s role is to decide if they want to eat the food and how much. This gives responsibility to both parties and puts trust in your child to decide how hungry they are, how much they want to eat, if at all.
They are given no alternatives to eat but you could offer choice between types of fruit for example. You don’t want to be offering foods you know they will eat all the time but it is a good idea to have at least one food per meal time you know they are likely to eat.
Also if you don’t have one already you could think about a mealtime routine. This will help children to establish an eating pattern so they are building up an appetite for mealtimes and tapping into when they are hungry so it makes it easier for them to want to eat.
Eating together around a table where possible is also helpful for role modelling. If your child sees you or siblings eating too they are more likely to try foods.
Let them serve themselves at mealtimes so they are having some control over what they want to eat, as long as you are providing the balance of healthy foods.
References can be given on request