Research to Practice: Developing Strategies to Address Food Selectivity

A Look at How Haring Center Research Becomes Everyday Classroom Practice

addressing food selectivityA central part of the Haring Center’s mission is to develop and test new strategies to answer the most pressing questions in inclusive education. Doctoral student and Haring Center researcher Yevgeniya Veverka is doing just that with her research on using ‘food play’ to address food selectivity in young children.

Most caregivers will agree that mealtimes with young children, who commonly develop ‘picky’ eating habits, can be quite frustrating. While many children eventually learn to increase the number and types of foods they eat, for some children this is not the case.

Feeding concerns can often present in children as infants and toddlers, however most interventions focused on feeding are initiated much later in childhood. This delay in treatment can be concerning for parents, as a young child who does not eat enough can result in negatively affecting growth rates, weight gain and overall development.

Unresolved cases can lead to the use of intensive interventions in clinical settings. In extreme cases when health is negatively impacted as a result of feeding challenges, tube feeding may be recommended. The goal of Veverka's research is to establish proactive interventions that can lead to the development of healthy mealtime behaviors and decreased caregiver stress to prevent the future need for more intensive interventions. 

“In working with children in homes, I found that mealtime challenges was a common concern for caregivers. I found that there was little literature on using strategies in natural environments such as classrooms and home mealtimes rather than clinical interventions,” Veverka said. “Food selectivity can leave parents feeling stressed and unsure of how to intervene before it becomes a bigger challenge, but there has not been much research done on proactive interventions for young children in natural settings.”

As part of her doctoral studies, Veverka designed an intervention that used food play to address food selectivity. As part of her study, which took place in the infant-toddler classrooms of the Haring Center’s school, the Experimental Education Unit’s (EEU), Veverka designed play activities that included food. Each child had goal foods (i.e. bananas, black beans, peas) that were chosen based on meals commonly eaten by the family and the nutritional value of the food. From that point, goal foods were introduced using the following strategies:

Peer Modeling: At least one peer was always engaged in the food play activity with each child participating in the study.

Shaping: Food acceptance was gradually shaped by encouraging lower level interactions such as touch and smell of food, before then encouraging higher levels of interaction such as taste.

Pairing: Goal foods were always paired with a preferred activity or preferred food.

All children who participated in the study had higher rates of acceptance of the goal food sessions following the completion of the intervention.

“This study shows that there are easy and effective steps that we can take to combat food selectivity that can be used outside of a clinical setting,” she said.

Once they were validated by research, these food play strategies were adopted as part of everyday classroom practice in the EEU toddler and preschool classrooms to increase food acceptance and address mealtime challenges.

For more on this study, contact Ververka at