BY - AMY PALANJIAN
Slippery foods, mushy foods, bready foods, crunchy foods, mixed textures…there are so many ways that texture aversions can manifest in our kids. To help, I’ll share tips for how to offer challenging foods to your kids to help them learn to eat them in all sorts of ways!
It’s no surprise that it takes time for our little ones to learn to eat, but it might come as a surprise that it can take a fair amount of time for toddlers to be able to handle certain textures. And because there’s such a wide range of normalcy on this topic, it can feel isolating when your kiddo won’t touch foods like meat or bread or any finger foods…and all of their little friends are scarfing it down.
Is it picky eating…or texture aversions?
With my first child, I hardly remember experiencing any texture challenges. She loved meat right from the start and took to almost everything I introduced to her with gusto. So I was completely caught off guard when baby number two struggled more with certain foods. It took her until she was four to actually want to eat meat. Until she was 16 month old, she like anything with the texture of a muffin or a pancake. And the week she turned 17 months was the first time she could actually chew and swallow tiny cubes of very lightly toasted bread.
None of this, in itself, is a big deal. But when you’re trying to feed your little one a range of healthy foods, eliminating entire food groups like bread and meat can make things feel almost impossible.
Meet Jenny Mc Glothlin
Jenny McGlothlin is a co-author of Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating and is a Speech Language Pathologist who works in the responsive feeding program at the UT Dallas Callier Center. She helped me sort through some of the most common texture issues, and explained what’s normal and what’s not as your baby turns into a toddler, then keeps on growing and turning into a big kid.
Tips for Toddlers Who Struggle with Mixed Textures
“Mixed textures are difficult for toddlers who are just learning how to manage the manipulation of one texture. Casseroles, vegetable soup, etc. can overwhelm them and they may spit out pieces of things they don’t know what do with. Deconstructing mixed foods (separating out the ingredients from a stew/soup/casserole) can reduce the oral motor load and also allow your toddler to approach each item separately.” —Jenny
With something like chili, you can separate the ingredients in the bowl and limit the amount of liquid so you’d have a little pile of beans, meat, and perhaps cheese next to each other. This allows the child to clearly see what’s in their bowl and eat one food at a time.
If serving lasagna, perhaps you hold back a small portion of each ingredient so your child can eat them separately.
If serving tacos, put the ingredients on the table in family-style bowls and allow the child to decide what of the foods to put on their plate.
Tips for Kids Who Dislike Mashed or Sticky Foods
“Many toddlers have trouble with very sticky foods such as mashed potatoes or peanut butter. You might see gagging or holding the mouth open, as the food coats their tongue. Thinning these foods out (with milk for potatoes, a little water for PB) can help them manage these foods and swallow them more successfully.” —Jenny
Use a 1:4 ratio of peanut butter to water and stir it up until it’s the consistency of yogurt. This is much less sticky than straight nut butter, but still tastes good.
Try roasted potatoes instead of mashed potatoes.
Be sure to also offer water with meals so the kids can drink regularly to help foods move around in their mouths.
Tips for Toddlers Who Struggle with Slippery Foods
A common strategy for slippery foods like banana slices, avocado slices, or other produce is to add a sprinkle of another food with a texture onto it to make it easier to hold—and so that it won’t move around your child’s mouth quite so fast.
Use chia seeds, hemp seeds, sesame seeds, breadcrumbs, crushed dry cereal, or shredded unsweetened coconut as “sprinkles” on slices of banana or avocado.
Serve slippery foods on a spoon, break bananas up into segments rather than slicing into rounds.
Spread slippery or mashed foods onto toast to add texture.
Tips for Kids Who Dislike Bready Foods
“Introduce more firm textures like crackers or shortbread as a way to introduce this type of food. These might be easier to manage for a child who is looking for more [sensory] input than a soft bread can provide. Serve bread or muffins or whatever other food item you are presenting as part of a meal, family-style, so your child can see the food, see you eating the food, and perhaps engage with the food on their own terms. Crumbling a muffin on your plate is great fun!” —Jenny
Consider lightly toasting bread instead of serving it soft.
Try crackers, toasted muffins, breadsticks, toasted pita bread, and the like. Just be sure to choose options that dissolve fairly quickly to reduce any choking concerns. (So a Breton cracker over a Triscuit for a one year old.)
Spread apple butter or applesauce onto pancakes or waffles to add moisture.
Always offer a drink with muffins and bread to make sure your child has easy access to them if a food seems to get stuck in their mouth.
Try meatballs, cut up or mashed.
Blend fully cooked beef into Marinara Sauce.
Shredded meat or chicken will always be easier for a child to eat than grilled or pan-fried, especially with steak.
Try offering deli meats cut up into very soft and small pieces.
TIP: Read more about what to do if your child is averse to all meat here.
By what age do these texture aversions tend to resolve?
“Every child is different and has their own preferences, and some children with texture sensitivities can hold on to their challenges into elementary school. Most toddlers go through a picky, neophobic* stage beginning around 14-16 months, and lasting until around age 5. Texture preferences can change! Also, many children need to have crunchy foods with every meal in order for their sensory system to function at the most alert level, so be sure to include those foods if your child appears to be a sensory seeker.” —Jenny
*”Neophobic” is common phase in toddlerhood of refusing and avoiding new foods. As Jenny says, it usually improves around age 5—but that is an average and every child is different, so it may not happen until 7 or 8 with your child. (A flip switched in my oldest at age 6!)
More Tips for Helping Kids with Texture Aversions
Remember that it takes time for kids to learn to eat all of the various textures available to us.
Serve very small portions to reduce mealtime stress.
Allow kids to touch, taste, nibble, spit out, and explore their food as needed. All of that exposure, even if they don’t actually swallow the food, is helpful progress.
Allow kids to explore food away from the table at the grocery store, farmer’s market, in the garden, while helping you cook, and more where there is likely to be less pressure.
You can add more information to foods by making them distinctly hot or cold, rather than warm temperature.
Be sure to always offer a drink at meals and keep it where your child can easily reach it.
Allow kids to have their own unique likes and dislikes—it’s okay if they prefer some textures over others!
Continue to serve a variety of foods, pairing foods you know they usually like with ones that are more of a challenge so that there’s always a “safe” food on their plate and exposure to additional foods you want them to eat.
When to Seek Professional Help
According to Jenny, these are signs that you may want to reach out to your pediatrician and/or a feeding therapist for help. (A small amount of texture aversions can be normal, but if some or all of these things are happening or you just feel it in your gut that something isn’t quite right, do reach out for help.)
Child regularly gags or vomits at each meal (with consideration for transitions to textured food).
Child is not eating enough in terms of quantity or variety to support healthy emotional, physical or social development.
Parent reports significantly different mealtime behaviors than you see at school.
Child isn’t chewing well, spits out food after chewing, or can’t keep food in their mouth.
Child swallows food whole. (Here’s how to tell if your child isn’t chewing: Child younger than 3, but “chews” with mouth closed; Child chokes or gags while eating; Child winces during swallowing; You can identify whole pieces of food in diaper or vomit; Child is constipated; Child fails to maintain weight despite eating age-appropriate amounts of food; Child stuffs mouth full of food while eating and often needs reminders to slow down and take smaller bites.”