By Abby Ziegler, MA.-CCC-SLP
I think most of us can agree that eating has long been a positive experience that we look forward to at any given point of the day. Just like walking and talking, we often take this skill of viewing mealtimes as an enjoyable part of our day for granted. For some, mealtimes are stressful and the furthest thing from fun. Have you ever experienced a mealtime with a picky eater? If your answer is “yes”, then you understand the frustrations that can arise even before the child is placed in their designated location for eating. So, the million dollar questions are “why?” and “how can I fix this problem?”
Unfortunately, the “why?” part of the question is not always transparent. A pediatric feeding problem is often accompanied by a developmental delay or medical disorder, however, children who are considered typically developing can also have a fear of food, which makes it more difficult to pin-point the exact problem and solution.
As a feeding therapist, I first gather important medical history, followed by an extensive examination of the oral structures we use while eating to be sure this is not negatively impacting their abilities. But no matter what I discover during my initial evaluation, there is one key tool that always allows me to get kids in their chair and at least interacting with their food-and that is making mealtimes positive and fun.
Children who are considered picky eaters, most likely view eating as a burden or have had a negative experience that has now caused them to dislike a typically enjoyable part of the day. So, in my opinion, shouldn’t the first thing we do be to change their viewpoints for the better? Well, I can tell you that bubbles and other simple forms of positive reinforcement (i.e. clapping, music, jumping toys, etc.) have become my best friends because of the simple power they hold for any child. Now, we will eventually fade these reinforcements, but they are especially useful in the beginning as we gain trust and engagement in mealtimes.
Once we have earned their trust, we can begin using other strategies to encourage children to increase their volume of intake while accepting a wider variety of food. Let me first tell you that this process requires patience. To maintain that trust, we cannot allow them to go back to viewing mealtimes as negative. So, if that means accepting a kiss of a non-preferred food item, then we will take that as a win and keep working up to getting that food item into their mouths. After that kiss of the dreaded piece of nutrition, they should immediately be praised with a simple clap or blow of a bubble. Another way to encourage interaction and eating of non-preferred food items is to pair it with preferred food items and alternating between them. In order to get a bite of their favorite food, they must touch, kiss or lick (maybe even bite?!) that “not-so-favorite-food”.
This is a simple strategy that can be utilized in a variety of settings, but it is important to rule out any underlying medical issues as a cause of this behavior and/or seek a comprehensive feeding evaluation from a speech-language pathologist. I hope these words provide some relief to our frustrated parents out there who are battling during mealtimes just to make sure their kids are growing and healthy beings.