Eating is supposed to be an enjoyable and social experience. For children with feeding disorders, the opposite may be true. In fact, children with sensory-based feeding disorders often find mealtimes to be stressful and anxiety-provoking. This might feel discouraging to parents, who feel helpless as they worry about their child’s nutrition, growth and well-being. Not to mention that it’s wearing when mealtimes frequently result in meltdowns.
When working with children with feeding difficulties, an important goal is to foster positive experiences with food. Children with feeding disorders often have strong negative associations towards foods, whether from related pain, discomfort, sensory-aversions, or past negative experiences. To break these associations, mealtimes must be strategically planned to ensure positive experiences and a new relationship with food.
8 fun ways to revamp mealtime:
1. Make a placemat with your child. Help your child decorate a construction-paper placemat. Let them choose favorite movie characters, stickers, or pictures to fill their placemat. Laminate your child’s placemat to use at mealtime.
2. Let your child help with cooking. Give your child special jobs to help prepare meals, weather its helping mix foods, scooping foods onto plates, or adding ingredients.
3. Explore food during non-mealtimes. Plan fun activities to explore foods during non-mealtimes, when there’s no pressure to eat. You might make a craft out of foods (e.g. potato stamps), or finger paint with different sauces.
4. Make fun food shapes. Incorporate cookie-cutters into meal preparations. Have your child choose a fun shape, whether it be a racecar, an animal or a favorite shape. You might make heart-shaped pancakes, star-shaped sandwiches, or triangle potato slices.
5. Forget the manners. Let your child get messy while they explore their food. Touching and playing with food in a fun context will help young children reduce textural sensitivities. If you’re worried about messy eating occurring in public, then set parameters ahead of time. For example, you might make “silly rules” for Friday night dinners at home.
6. Make an edible craft. Plan a fun edible craft to create with your child. Instead of focusing on eating the craft, focus on making it. Enjoy planning the ingredients, grocery shopping, and putting it all together. For fun edible craft ideas, visit this previous blog.
7. Make a food face. Use a round plate, or draw a circle on a big piece of paper. Encourage you child to add different parts to the face. You might make spaghetti hair, grape eyes, and an apple smile. Experiencing food in a playful context will create a positive experience with food.
8. Make it social. Eating is a social experience, so be sure to participate with your child. Children learn by watching, so model positive interactions with food. Enjoy laughing and being silly while you experience new foods with your child.
If you suspect that your child has atypical feeding habits, seek help from a licensed therapist right away. These suggestions are not a replacement for feeding therapy, but are a supplement to recommendations by a trained therapist. A therapist trained in treating feeding disorders will help identify the underlying problem, determine whether your child is able to chew and swallow safely, and develop a specific plan to intervene.