When the whole casserole is scarier than the sum of its parts

This topic comes up all the time in feeding therapy: My child won’t eat mixed foods!

Mixed foods are a challenge for many kids (and adults if we get right down to it). But why? For those of us that are comfortable eating mixed foods it might feel like a bit of a mystery but when we do a little digging we can find the answers that make those combinations foods such a problem area for many of our kids.

I always like to start out by framing these things from my own perspective. There are many mixed foods that I do like, but others that I’m not as comfortable with. In general, I’m wary of foods that are going to surprise me in some way. For example, I’m probably going to be more reluctant to order a combined food dish at a restaurant that is serving a type of ethnic food I’m not familiar with. I’m going to want to see each and every item on the plate and decide whether I like it before you start hiding things under a sauce. And if I bite into something that has an unexpected texture (hard, chewy, something with juice that’s going to squirt into my mouth) I’m going to be even more likely to call it quits.

Now think about our learning eaters…almost everything we serve can be like that first meal in the Thai restaurant (speaking of, mmm, Spicy Veggie you’re calling my name!). They aren’t sure what to expect and that can lead to refusal to try. And all of our cajoling with, “Just try it! You’ll like it!” is unlikely to change a mind. In fact it’s likely to backfire and result in more prolonged refusal.

Another factor that can lead to refusal or reluctance to try mixed foods is immature oral motor skills. Each different component of our delicious chicken pot pie likely has slightly different characteristics that affect the way we have to manage it in our mouth. Crisp crust, creamy gravy, soft vegetables, a bit more firm chicken. As a mature eater it comes naturally to make slight adjustments to how firmly or gently you chew even within the same forkful of food. You can (likely) recover when that pea goes POP or a slippery piece of carrot slides over toward your cheek. For a kiddo with immature skills this can be a challenge at best and downright scary at worst. For most these skills develop with practice. If you’re concerned that your child’s skills aren’t improving over time it might be time to talk with your pediatrician about a referral to a therapist who specializes in feeding and swallowing difficulties in children (usually a speech-language pathologist or occupational therapist).

So do you just need to stop serving mixed foods to your reluctant eater? DEFINITELY NOT! If you stop serving a food you can’t expect your child to learn to eat it. But there are some compassionate ways to help the learning process.

Continue to serve a SMALL portion of the mixed food every time you serve it to the rest of the family. Aim for about a teaspoon full. This is a small enough amount that it’s minimally threatening and it also isn’t going to create much food waste when it doesn’t get eaten. (Did you notice that I said “when” and not “if it doesn’t get eaten”? This is a nice mom mindset to decrease your stress level. Don’t expect or worry about it getting eaten! That’s not the point right now.)

Serve a deconstructed version of the mixed food. Using our pot pie example, a few pieces each of diced chicken, carrots, potatoes, peas and a tiny container of gravy for dipping. Now I know this isn’t possible with all foods, especially if you’re out at a restaurant or potluck but it is possible in many instances when you’re cooking at home. Just leave out a little bit of each ingredient when you’re putting the recipe together. Super easy if you’re making that pot pie with a leftover rotisserie chicken and a bag of frozen mixed vegetables…a bit trickier if you’re doing a one-pot type meal where you’re throwing in raw meat and everything else, but still possible. Then at the table you might encourage your child to use his fork to search around in the mixed food to see if she can find a match for each individual item. You can model dipping the component foods into the gravy and talk about how it changes the taste or the texture. We might work up to spearing a piece of chicken and carrot on our fork and trying them together. You can comment on what you notice, for example, “Hmm, I have to chew a bit longer on the chicken than the potato. What did you notice?” Through all of this the emphasis is on exploration and learning.

You might get tired of hearing me say this, but have your child help you cook! This is a great opportunity to learn about the ingredients without the pressure to eat them and also provides ownership of the final product. Having kids help you bake cookies is awesome but having them help you cook the foods they don’t readily eat is even more AWESOME!

Do I expect these strategies to get your reluctant eater to gobble up a whole serving of a mixed food after one try? Unlikely. As with everything in feeding, this is a process. But using these strategies will give you a map for moving forward. Celebrate the small wins every step along the way!

learning to like mixed foods

I’ve created this graphic and a printable worksheet to help you along. The worksheet has the right hand column left blank for you to make a plan for your own goal food. Printables are a special treat for my newsletter subscribers, so make sure you sign up to get access to new materials as soon as they’re available! (If you’re looking for a printable that was published before you subscribed just send me an email and I’ll get it out to you.)

I’d love to know what’s working and what roadblocks you’re coming up against as you focus on feeding. I plan my content around what you tell me you need. Just drop me an email or reach out on Facebook or Instagram. And as always, if you know someone who might benefit from this info please share the post on your social media.