Why fajitas can help your picky eater!

So, you’re thinking…. What’s this about fajitas? But my kid doesn’t eat chicken/onion/spice/peppers/insert your child’s yuk food here….. 

What I’m going to tell you is going to take the pressure off YOU at mealtimes. It’s going to make mealtimes more enjoyable! It’s going to remove the need for you to nag your kids to eat at the dinner table and liklihood is, it’s going to turn some of those YUK foods into LEARNING foods and eventually into LIKE or even LOVE foods!

“What! What’s this? What’s a LEARNING food!?”

Well, research shows us that it can take up to 12 exposures (or more) for us to truly know whether we like a food or not. This means we need to see, taste, smell and/or feel a food at least 12 times before we can make a decision as to whether we really like it or not.
The great news here is that we, as adults, and our kids can “learn” to like foods. Now, this doesn’t mean strapping in and repetitively eating those leftover brussel sprouts until we “learn” to like them! 

What it means is, if we see sprouts cooked in different ways – fried, boiled, chopped, with sauce/without sauce, with sweet accompaniments e.g. cranberries, with savory e.g. cashews. If we see them at different places and at different times. If we cook with them, feel them at the supermarket, have them nearby, on or off our plates for 12 times or more. All with an opportunity to try them but with no pressure to do so. Then… we can “learn” to first of all tolerate them and then to like them! 

Yes you heard me brussel sprout haters! Actually like them!

So where do fajitas come into this!?

Well! Faijtas are a special type of “family style meal”. This means they are a meal that can be served deconstructed (with all the foods in seperate bowls as oppose to being dished out all together as a complete meal). They can also be arranged on the table or kitchen side so that everyone can serve themselves, as much or as little of each part, as they like. This concept was first introduced by dietician Ellyn Sattyr and is used by feeding experts worldwide.

“But my toddler is already ruling the roost and making his own special requests at mealtimes…”

This is a way to combat this short order cooking! By ensuring that your child has at least 1-2 of their preferred foods on the table they feel safe and are able to enjoy the mealtime whilst you and the rest of the family can enjoy exactly the same meal aswel! This way you know your child will eat something from the table but you haven’t had to resort to cooking them something completely separate from the rest of the family… Again!

“But, what.. how… If theyre only going to eat a wrap and grated cheese how can this be ok?”

The focus here is on the enjoyment of the social aspect of the mealtime, creating a space where everyone can enjoy each other’s company as well as what they choose to eat. This is a space where you, as a parent, can know there are foods that your child will eat and you can remove the pressure on yourself and them to eat other foods!

“But this doesn’t change what they’re eating…”

Well, here’s the trick!!! Children may not expand their acceptance in a single meal but in this single meal you are creating exposures to foods that your child otherwise wouldn’t be experiencing. This is the start of learning to like new foods and the first 1 of the 12(ish) exposures! You are also developing your child’s trust in these family style meals! And with trust comes confidence to explore and become curious about new foods! 

By removing the pressure (on everyone) at mealtimes you are helping to develop your child’s inner desire to learn about and eventually like and love new foods! 
The opposite of this… The regular mealtime battles where our beloved little ones, either reach meltdown town or we cave and give their favourite foods just so they will eat/calm down/sleep that night…. These occurrences actually build a barrier to trust. Any perceived pressure at mealtimes can spark our children’s fight, flight or freeze systems and further perpetuate these battles at subsequent mealtimes. As child and parent begin to anticipate stressful meals they can become a family event that serve as a trigger point for a tantrum.

“So how do I actually do this? What does it actually look like!?”

Tips for getting started with family style meals include:

  • Serve meals that can be “deconstructed” – put all the foods on separate plates and let everyone feed themselves WHAT and HOW MUCH they want from each plate.
  • Always ensure there are at least 1-2 of your picky eaters preffered foods.
  • If a child wants to eat all of the preferred food from the bowl… let them know the rule that everyone who wants some has to have some before anyone can have seconds!
  • If you’re picky eater only chooses their preferred foods tell yourself “it’s ok!!”. You can still increase exposures even in a single mealtime by:Asking them to pass you foods for your plateTalking together about what foods look, smell, taste like – use words to describe the sensory properties of foods e.g. leafy, small, runny, sour, sweet as oppose to statements I like/don’t like.Having them help prepare the foodsHaving them scrape the left overs into the bin/containers
  • Choose specific nights where you will serve family style meals so that you can plan ahead – even one night of no pressure meals a week is a start in the right direction!
  • If you don’t typically eat at a table, lay the bowls out on the kitchen side and everyone can serve themselves together.
  • Remind yourself what your child eats in a day/week as oppose to focusing on what they eat in any specific meal! You may find that in individual meals they are highly selective but that they still eat a wide range of foods across the week.
  • Talk about yours or your child’s favourite TV show, movie character, football team, friend! Choose a no pressure topic for you and/or the children that you know gives you good vibes!
  • Enjoy! Now you have set the plan that you are not going to worry about pressuring your child into what and how much they have to eat in the meal. You can sit back, free from pressure on yourself, and enjoy the meal with your family! 

“Last thing! What types of meals can I serve this way?”

With fajitas as an example think….

  • Deconstructed pasta – sauce, meat, vegis and pasta all in separate bowls.
  • Tacos – with all the accompaniments separate.
  • The English favourite – a roast dinner!
  • Deconstructed sandwiches/toasties – with a range of fillings
  • Loaded chips or potato skins – with a range of sauces, salad and 1-2 fillings e.g. cheese, tuna, chilli
  • The opportunities are endless – have fun thinking about how many of your regular weekly meals you can deconstruct!
  • So, give a fajita style meal suitable for your family a try this week! Remove the pressure from yourself and your little one and watch the learning happen!

If these strategies don’t work for your picky eater do not despair!!! They may simply need a more step by step approach and/or have underlying oral motor and/or sensory issues that are making mealtimes more challenging than they would be for our average picky eaters.

If you would like further advice on how to utilise this strategy and/or how to access a structured plan to support extreme picky eating please get in touch for a free 15 minute consult! 

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