Seeing things from your child's perspective is the first step towards helping them with their picky eating...
Try to imagine what it is really like to be them and how it feels to be faced with a disliked or unfamiliar food. Someone* on facebook recently used the analogy of donkey entrails: For a child who is really picky, a plateful of broccoli and salmon might provoke the same visceral reaction in them as a steaming pile of donkey entrails on a plate would elicit in you and I.
Sorry to be disgusting, BUT that's kind of the point. The donkey entrails simile is stomach-turning. And scary. Just as many foods are scary and revolting to a very food-anxious small person.
A technique that gives cautious eaters a bit of breathing space, is 'the spit option'. This isn't something I've invented; many feeding specialists (including Ellyn Satter) recommend it. And we recommend it because it works.
What is the spit option?
The spit option is very simply the habit of giving your child the option to spit out new or disliked food if they feel they need to. You put a bowl or paper napkin by the child's plate, explaining to them that if they are struggling with a mouthful (or tiny taste) of food, they may spit it out.
Bowl or napkin?
It's up to you of course, but personally I prefer something disposable ( a paper napkin, a tissue, some kitchen paper...) because it's more discreet, easy to quickly jettison after use AND less likely to gross-out any sensitive siblings nearby.
Why does the spit option help picky eaters?
If a child is a cautious eater, it is very important to give them a sense of control. If a child feels in control and is not worried about being pressured into doing something they are uncomfortable with, anxiety levels are reduced and eating improves.
If your child is not a fan of peas, let's imagine what it must be like to try one:
Let's say you are offered a slice of apple. You can anticipate how it will taste and smell - you've had apple before. You know it will be crunchy, you expect it to taste sweet and pleasant. In other words, all this familiarity and positive memories of eating apples contribute to your sense of ease as you reach for a slice. You are in control - you know what to expect and you are okay with it.
Now, imagine that you are offered a taste of the Icelandic delicacy, fermented shark. You wonder what it will taste and smell like - you are not sure if you will like it. What will the texture be like? What if you can't bring yourself to swallow it and everyone is watching?? All pretty unsettling. That's like your child with the pea. The pea is their fermented shark - their donkey entrails.
We are hard-wired not to want to swallow food that disgusts us - this is an evolutionary mechanism developed to help our ancient ancestors stay safe and avoid eating poisonous or rotten things. This in-built response can be really physical. When we say something 'made us retch', the chances are, it really did.
By giving children an option to spit out something they don't like, we are giving them back control. They don't need to worry about hating it; they can spit it out. They don't need to be afraid that they won't be able to swallow it; no-one is asking them to. The spit option is a great way of freeing your child up to try foods in a pressure-free way. It is their safety net.
How to introduce the spit option in your house
I am not a believer in encouraging children to try food. The kind of encouragement I advocate is symbolic: they are encouraged by seeing foods available and being exposed to a varied diet. They are encouraged by watching the adults around them enjoying a positive relationship with food. If you want to read more about this, you may find my post: Why I say 'no thank-you' to the 'no-thank-you-bite' helpful.
So the spit option is not about pressuring children to try food. It's just something to have available so that they know they can try something and spit it out if they so choose. Teaching children to leave food politely is part of managing picky eating - this is a low-drama, negativity-free way for children to try something and decide they're not ready to swallow it.
It's great for children of all ages, and if you really want to embrace the concept of modelling (teaching by example), stick something on the table that you're nervous about trying and grab yourself a napkin too!
*I'm afraid I can't remember who you are to credit you... please comment if you're reading this!