Toddler girl happily eating salad

The Magic of the Tiny Salad: Understanding How Food Size and Texture Impacts Picky Eating

It’s easy to admit that one of the greatest benefits of social media is keeping in touch with friends from long ago. My dear friend and fellow trombone player from high school, Liz, is one of those I am so grateful for.

We’ve often connected through Facebook or Instagram over the years and kept up with one another’s families dozens of times more than we would have pre-Internet. In those times, a once-a-year Christmas letter might be all we would get.

We’ve kept up our bond enough so that when we traveled for six weeks in 2019, the entire Kimball circus stayed with Liz’s family.

Imagine six boisterous people and their Instant Pot moving in for three days with a family of five living in a three-bedroom house. Yes, we are all adventurous and clearly care for each other enough to put up with a little discomfort.

It was a treasured time getting to know her family in person instead of just through pictures. Our kids bonded, and so did my husband and her youngest. “I don’t like other people’s kids,” my husband typically says.

He loves our children very much, and that extends to nieces and nephews. But that’s where his love of children ends.

Except with Richie. Richie, age 18 months at the time, I believe, had some sort of magnetism to my husband, Kris.

After that three days, anytime I would show Kris a picture of Richie on Instagram, you could tell his heart melted. “That kid was something else,” he would say.

I hope you feel the same way as I share a great story about my brilliant friend Liz and her little guy, Richie. This story takes place when he’s closer to 3 years old.

She excitedly reached out to me (via Instagram, of course) with a huge salad eating success.

She shared that although all her kids really are great vegetable eaters, Richie never liked to participate in a lunch or dinnertime salad with his older siblings and parents.

Until one day …

Toddler eating chopped salad with a spoon

Liz had the brilliant deduction that perhaps Richie’s still developing fine motor control and fork prowess were at the root of the problem.

In a stroke of genius, she decided to chop the salad very, very small, almost as if it had been pulsed a few times in a food processor (which would be an option if you have a number of little children around).

This is what Liz said happened:

Today I had a bit of an aha moment. I super chopped the salad up so he could eat it with a spoon and he ate it up so fast!! He didn’t get frustrated or make a mess. Also, it’s easier to chew well. So, just thought it would be a bit of encouragement to other parents that it might not be the veggie but how to eat it.

Yes, my friends. That’s every parent’s dream: a 3-year-old devouring a nourishing salad.

I immediately asked Liz if I had permission to share this with my audience because so many parents worry about their kids eating vegetables.

This is such a great example of the fact that it’s not always about the vegetables if you think you have picky eaters. In this case, we want to study things like fine motor control, the size, and shape of the food, and, of course, texture — a nemesis for many children.

Fine Motor Control and Eating go Hand in Hand

Child eating dinner with a spoon

Any parent who watches a toddler or preschooler eat, hold a crayon to write their name, or brush their teeth can quickly see that their fine motor control is far behind that of an elementary school child or an adult. What does this mean at the dinner table?

It’s far more work and effort for small children to feed themselves. The more we as savvy parents can reduce their physical workload, the more likely those vegetables are to actually make it to their mouths.

Allow your child to use a spoon instead of a fork. What if we even let kids eat with their hands? (It is after all beneficial for toddlers to play with their food.) I know, I know, that doesn’t sound especially clean or proper! 

But Liz’s story has me thinking that especially if dealing with a picky eater, between the ages of 18 months and 5 years, it may be wise to allow finger-feeding a little longer in the name of keeping dinners positive and nourishing.

Work With Your Child to Develop Fine Motor Eating Skills

Child playing in a sensory bin

We know that as humans develop, they start with large grasping motions, and then begin to develop the pincer grasp and continue to move on from there.

Just as a preschooler or kindergartner writes with large letters and has trouble staying on a line, the same child will have some trouble using forks and spoons at first. It’s a skill to be learned.

We can’t rush our children through each stage of fine motor control development by skipping any stages, but we can help them more quickly strengthen those muscles and develop that control.

Simple exercises like allowing a child to pick up tiny beads — or even peas or black beans, to keep it on the theme — can be helpful to continue to develop the pincer grasp, for example.

Some Montessori activities that we used to do with our 2-, 3-, and 4-year olds at home include using tweezers to move beads from one bowl to another and back and clipping wooden clothespins on the edge of a box, and then taking them back off.

It sounds boring to an adult, but I assure you children are fascinated by practicing everything.

The game of parenting is a lot about waiting, isn’t it?

So we wait for our children to develop their fine motor control; and in the meantime, we do things to help them, like allowing them to use a spoon instead of a fork so that they can continue to develop their palate and love of healthy food.

What If Picky Eating Is About the Size of the Food?

Toddler eating vegetables cut into tiny pieces

Have you ever watched an adult eat a massive burger in a restaurant, one of those 30-layer thick sandwiches that those of us who read the funny papers in the 80s would have called a Dagwood?

Generally, most will attack that sandwich with great joy and vigor. But some will pull it apart, making it into two sandwiches or even three, or even use a fork. Adults have preferences, and children do too.

Of course, there’s also the obvious physical distinction that toddlers have smaller mouths than older kids who have smaller mouths than adults making it more difficult for a toddler to eat certain foods when they’re in large pieces. 

As their faces grow and their mouths grow and their teeth get stronger, they’ll be able to handle more varied sizes and shapes.

In the meantime, if a child is having trouble learning to eat, which really is one of the hardest things we will ever do (see Dr. Kay Toomey’s interview for more on that), we as parents can certainly help them out by changing the size and shape of what they are eating and what they are chewing.

What other instances might occur where simply changing the size of the food might make a huge difference?

  • All sorts of salads, of course.
  • Raw vegetables. Can we cut them into pea-sized pieces and put a toothpick in each one for easy dipping?
  • Steamed, frozen vegetables. My broccoli and green beans from Costco are a fine size for an adult. But getting them a lot closer to one or two pea-sized pieces may help your child be able to control them so much better.
  • Meat of all kinds (excluding ground meat). It’s a lot of chewing for a child to eat a piece of grilled chicken or steak for example. That’s why slow cooker or Instant Pot meals that allow the chicken to shred can be so much more palatable for our younger children. Of course, still cut up all the pieces, or even pulse quickly in that food processor.

Size Applies to Portion Size as Well

We also may want to be cognizant of the size of our portions. We eat first with our eyes and how our brain processes what we see.

This is why food that looks beautiful on Pinterest makes us salivate. This is also why food that’s presented in a cute way sometimes gets kids more excited about eating it.

Food in an animal shape on a dinner plate

Now, I hear you, exhausted parents. You might not have time to make cute bento lunchboxes with cookie-cutter cheese and faces on the sandwiches. But we can think about the visual presentation in another way as well.

What if a large bowl of chili and a chunk of cornbread as big as their hand makes a toddler feel intimidated? What if a plate full of three or four adequate servings of different foods makes an 8-year-old picky eater stressed out that he or she will have to finish at all?

Sometimes the “size” of the food can make a difference to our kids’ brains.

Try one bite at a time. Especially if you do have a very selective eater who has some fears and stresses around food, that plate with four bites of four different things on it is going to give them a much better chance of putting a tiny taste in their mouth.

Really consider the size of each bite that your child sees, how easily they can get into their mouth, and the size of individual servings.

Changing the size of a food isn’t just about the visual presentation or the ability to get it into your mouth. The size can also impact the texture of the food and texture is often a major component of picky eating issues.

The Role of Texture for Picky Eaters

Child eating squash with a spoon

At first thought, it doesn’t seem like cutting a salad up into tiny pieces would actually change the texture or the mouthfeel. It seems like it’s just about the delivery system with the spoon.

However, as someone who would love tiny shreds of carrot in my salad but might get annoyed by half-inch by half-inch cubes of carrot, I can tell you that texture does make a difference in the enjoyment of food

Children who are highly sensitive personalities or who may have a bit increased or decreased sensory processing are going to be more attuned to texture than we normal adults can believe.

So consider how you can impact the texture by changing the size of foods.

  • Can you cut something smaller?
  • Can you shred something that you usually cut?
  • Can you food process something (I’m looking at you, mushrooms!) that usually stand out as large and slimy in a soup or casserole?
  • Can you observe the different ways your child reacts to something like grilled chicken versus shredded chicken or a beef roast versus crumbled hamburger?

Why don’t kids like different food textures?

This is fascinating, really. I recently did an interview with dietitian Edwena Kennedy that will be released in Fall 2021. She talks about the developmental stages of learning to swallow liquids first, then progressing to purees, then thicker and chunkier purees, and on to actual food and chewing.

Again, we can’t expect or force our children to skip a stage. The trouble with textures often comes if a child remains in one stage too long.

The usual culprit here is purees. Purees are easy to serve, fairly easy for children to swallow once they figure out how to stop the tongue thrust movement, and we as parents are comfortable giving our children baby food, at least through their first birthday.

The trouble is that at about 9 months, children really need to have more texture. They’re ready for chunks and ready to experiment with chewing. And if given the right experiences, their gag reflex will begin to move further and further back into the mouth.

Sometimes when an older child, whether that child is 3 years old or 8 years old, has trouble with a lot of texture, it may be because they didn’t progress through the puree stage of development as quickly as they should. No guilt here, parents, but we can always fix things.

There are also some children, of course, who have a sensory processing disorder. See Dr. Nicole Beurkens’ interview for more on that.

For these kids, their processing abilities are just set at a different level than ours, often too high, hence being called “sensitive.” So what feels comfortable in your mouth feels absolutely terrifying in the mouth of a child with SPD.

But any texture aversions can be overcome with intentional work.

And it’s good for parents to know that eventually, most humans will accept most textures, but we all have our own preferences.

So is texture developmental? Yes. Can it also be disordered? Yes.

Parents of picky eaters know that texture can be a major hot-button issue. So I highly recommend dialing in at first on what textures your children will accept and appreciate.

Work with those, and make micro-adjustments from that texture to a different texture.

For example, if a child only accepts purees, you would slightly increase the thickness of that puree bit by bit to move them toward something more chunky, etc.

How to Get Kids to Eat Mushrooms

Kids chopping mushrooms

Let’s do a little investigation and demonstration about helping kids be more open to new foods by changing the size and texture.

Mushrooms are one of the quintessential kid-hated foods of all time.

I know Elmo always talks about how bad Brussels sprouts are, and he certainly had me fooled. I expected to hate Brussels sprouts until I tried them for the first time as an adult and loved them.

But when it comes to real kids in the real world, my experience with over 18,000 families learning to cook is that lots of kids don’t like mushrooms. I don’t blame them. I didn’t like them as a kid either. They’re slimy and they always stick their noses into lovely dishes where they don’t seem to belong.

How can we help kids learn to appreciate and adjust to mushrooms?

When I think about mushrooms from my childhood, they were always sliced and often even larger than whatever meat was in the dish. Think about a child-sized mouth: that’s an entire bite of just mushroom. No wonder your child isn’t rushing to try it!

When it comes to those slimy little things called mushrooms size and texture are quite intertwined. The texture issues are just far more noticeable the larger the pieces are.

To help kids be more used to mushrooms I would recommend dicing them incredibly small. If the texture is still an issue, use raw mushrooms in a tiny salad before cooked mushrooms.

What about throwing some mushrooms through a food processor so that they are even smaller than a pea? One-tenth the size of a pea!

Now you can put mushrooms into marinara sauce, a casserole, or creamy rice dish, blend them with ground meat for burgers, or even make a whole burger out of mushrooms like Becca does in this post covering many ways to use mushrooms. She has so many good ideas.

Pro tip: if you’re already a member of Kids Cook Real Food, we teach kids how to cut mushrooms with a paring knife in Intermediate level 2. Mushrooms are even soft enough for kids to cut with a butter knife which we teach in Beginner class 3.

Some kids may still freak out at the idea of mushrooms in their food, so start by giving them exposure to mushrooms away from the dinner table.

If you have kids who are still really working on fine motor control, I think it would be a wonderful idea to give them a few whole mushrooms to play with. Mushrooms break apart in such lovely and interesting ways.

If they’re able to use any knives, let them practice their knife skills by cutting up mushrooms for the rest of the family.

Any time a child has exposure to a food, that will help them be more acclimated to it and eventually accept eating it

Will this work for every kid who professes to despise mushrooms so far? Of course not. But it’s a good start.

And if we keep trying, eventually, like me, our kids will go on vacation and buy not one, not two, but three boxes of mushrooms for the family for the week. 😉

Decode Picky Eating: Food size and texture. Toddler girl happily eating salad.

Bottom Line: A New Way to Think about Picky Eating

When parents worry about their picky-eating children, they typically worry about the food that’s going in their mouths. We think that picky eating is a food problem, but sometimes it’s not.

Sometimes it’s just that our kids’ hands haven’t developed enough to feed themselves well. Sometimes it’s just that the size or shape of a food is not pleasing or easy to chew for them. And sometimes textures can really throw off how kids feel about food. And I think we all know that our feelings about food have a huge impact on what food we eat.

I encourage you today to observe your children, watch them chew, watch them feed themselves. We can be wonderful food detectives and figure out how to serve things just a little differently without short-order cooking to stop picky eating once and for all.

If you try this tiny salad trick, let me know so that I can give Liz your thanks!

 

What You Should Do Next:

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About Katie Kimball

Katie Kimball, CSME, creator of Kids Cook Real Food and CEO of Kitchen Stewardship, LLC, is passionate about connecting families around healthy food. As a trusted educator and author of 8 real food cookbooks, she’s been featured on media outlets like ABC, NBC and First for Women magazine and contributes periodically on the FOX Network.

Since 2009, busy moms have looked to Katie as a trusted authority and advocate for children’s health, and she often partners with health experts and medical practitioners to stay on the cutting edge. In 2016 she created the Wall Street Journal recommended best online kids cooking course, Kids Cook Real Food, helping thousands of families around the world learn to cook. She is actively masterminding the Kids’ Meal Revolution, with a goal of every child learning to cook.

A mom of 4 kids from Michigan, she is also a Certified Stress Mastery Educator, member of the American Institute of Stress and trained speaker through Bo Eason’s Personal Story Power.

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