For most people, eating is an enjoyable experience. Summer picnics, holiday feasts, and family gatherings are often highly anticipated events. However, for children with feeding difficulties, eating can be a stressful time. Children with sensory defensiveness may completely avoid certain textures or flavors of foods, and families become overwhelmed with how to deal with an overly “picky eater”. If your child presents with significant challenges when eating, it is best to seek help from a licensed Speech-Language Pathologist or Occupational Therapist. However, here are some simple tips that you can try to encourage mealtime success with your little one:
Tips For Mealtime Success
- The environment is critical when eating. If you are stressed at the start of a meal, your child can pick up on that. Try not to rush them through the meal, rather take your time and view mealtime as an opportunity to bond with your child.
- Make sure your child is not walking around when eating. While some kids like to graze, encourage your child to remain seated at the table during meals. Also, keep an eye on their posture. If your child is slouching, prop him or her up to 90 degrees when sitting if possible.
- Minimize distraction. While some kids may actually eat better with the TV on, try to eliminate this. You do not want your child to become excessively dependent upon technology and distracters during meals.
- Allow them to have some space. If your child has a small table that they like to sit at, occasionally allow them to have some time to themselves when eating. The added pressure of eating at a large dinner table with the rest of the family can be overwhelming to a child with feeding difficulties.
- Ditch the “Don’t play with your food” mentality. All kids should be able to explore what is in front of them, so allow them to play. If they are not given an opportunity to investigate new foods, they are not going to be as willing to try them.
- Watch portion sizes. If you have a young child or toddler, make sure that the pieces you give them are appropriately sized. If they can self-feed, make sure that they are not overstuffing their little mouths.
- Allow them to get messy. While it may not be ideal for mom and dad, this is important for your child. Don’t worry about wiping their hands and face after each bite, as you can always clean up after the meal.
- Give them choices. Offer children more than one option of a non-preferred food at meals (broccoli and zucchini, for example) and let them choose which one will stay on their plate during the meal. This helps to give them some autonomy, while you still maintain control.
- Do not force them to eat! While eating is ultimately the goal, kids first have to be able to tolerate, interact, smell, touch and taste the foods. If you force the issue too early, prepare for a battle later on!
- Make minor changes slowly. No one likes to eat the same thing everyday, so vary the types of foods that your child will eat. If your child insists on eating only spiral pasta with cheese sauce for dinner, consider first changing the shape of the pasta, then ultimately varying the type of sauce.
- Let your child help you prepare the meals. Kids love to help out in the kitchen, so expose them to all of the wonderful and healthy foods that we eat. Talk about all of the different properties of each food (color, texture, origin, etc.) to increase your child’s interest in a variety of foods.
- Relax!!! Do not focus so much on the quantity your child is consuming at each meal. Trying to count how many bites or ounces they have taken in will stress you out. Rather, the emphasis should be on bonding and spending time together as a family. If however you notice that your child seems to be eating less at each meal, keep an eye on this pattern and seek help as appropriate.