Dr. Sonja Burmeister, OTD, MSPA-C, OTR/L, EICP-OT
Parents of children with food allergy know and understand the struggles their child endures with food selectivity. Often food allergy is diagnosed secondary to an accidental exposure. Regardless of the severity, that exposure may leave an impression on the child that food is not safe and eating certain foods could be life threatening. As a Pediatric Occupational Therapist, I have treated hundreds of children with food selectivity. Through careful observation and history taking I have discovered that some children who are “picky eaters” have underlying undiagnosed medical conditions, such as food allergy or esophageal eosinophillia, that precipitate their food aversion. Other children may have texture intolerances and prefer a certain consistency of food such as crunchy items. In a study published by the World Journal of Gastroenterology, it was estimated that 20% of the general population express symptomatic responses to food (Teufel et al., 2007).
With the prevalence of food allergy and intolerances being so high, we must find safer ways of introducing new foods and help to minimize accidental exposures. Part of being prepared is ensuring your child has early and thorough testing once a food allergy is discovered. By ruling out allergy to the major threats, such as peanuts, tree nuts, milk, egg, soy and shellfish, your medical team can make recommendations on which foods to gradually try. Here are some steps to making food discovery fun:
- Include your child in your grocery shopping experience. Show them how you look at labels to identify potential allergens. Even small children can understand your intention as you model this behavior as part of your shopping routine.
- Allow your child to select from a variety of foods that you know are safe. Offering your child a sense of control over the food they eat is key in reducing their anxiety, especially when trying new foods.
- Invite your child to cook with you in the kitchen. Very small children can help to wash fruits and vegetables or place items in a bowl. Older children can gain a wealth of knowledge from following the sequence of a recipe, measuring items and learning to cook with your guidance.
- Provide serving utensils for each allergen free food item you offer and encourage your child to “serve themselves” a spoonful, even if they don’t want to try it. (The key here is allergen free as you don’t want to accidentally cross contaminate food at the table). Studies show that it takes around a dozen times of presenting a new food before a child may be willing to try it.
- Encourage your child to help clear the dishes and the food to the trash before putting their plate in the sink. This way your child has some engagement with the new food item, even if they aren’t willing to try it this time.
- Lastly, make food exploration fun. You can cut foods into fun shapes, create designs with food and even paint with it. The sky is the limit!
Teufel, M., Biedermann, T., Rapps, N., Hausteiner, C., Henningsen, P., Enck, P. & Zipfel, S. (2007). Psychological burden of food allergy. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 13(25), 3456-3465. doi: 10.3748/wig.v13.i25.3465
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