Mom is stressed, Dad’s frustrated, Grandma is worried… and a few more recognize that this little one should be eating more or have a wider variety in his diet. So, what can the village who loves this child do to help?
Every child is different and when I treat children with feeding difficulties, each child’s treatment plan looks different also. But, there are a few things that can be put in place with anyone, in any home and for almost every child that can support more individualized strategies used later.
I hear concerns about children with limited diets from parents, but also grandparents, aunts, uncles, daycare providers… The strategies recommended here are simple enough they can be implemented by anyone feeding the child. If all caregivers are working together to support the child, the positive outcomes will be seen quicker and with better staying power!
Make mealtimes enjoyable, fun and stress-free!
This point is absolutely the number one strategy! No other strategies will be effective without a pleasant mealtime environment and trusting relationships established between the child and her caregivers.
Each one of us creates strong emotional memories when we eat. Think of your favorite foods and what that reminds you of… My husband absolutely loves sugared cereal… Froot Loops, Lucky Charms, Apple Jacks… Growing up, his dad had a long commute to work, so left early in the morning and came home late at night. As a boy, my husband wanted to see his dad during the day, so he would set his alarm early in the dark morning hours and eat breakfast (sugared cereal) with his dad before he left for his long drive. He’d then go back to bed to sleep a bit longer. My husband has fond memories of those early morning talks with his dad and has associated the food that he was eating with that fondness.
Now think of foods you can’t stand to eat or won’t even touch… My husband hates bananas and doesn’t even like them on the counter in our house. When he was young, he had a babysitter who was determined that he would finish all the food on his plate. He has memories of being force-fed bananas, with it squishing between his teeth as he was fighting it. He’s a grown man and still has definite strong aversions to even the thought of touching bananas.
So what emotions are swirling around your food being served at your house with your children? What’s the stress level with the adults and children? Children pick up on our adult stress level so quickly and profoundly, so it’s important that caregivers come to the table able to enjoy the meal also.
Eat together and enjoy social interactions around nourishing foods. Have fun! Create a mealtime environment that makes your child smile and feel at ease as you’re eating together. This means you may have to relax traditional table etiquette and that’s perfectly fine. Because in the long-term, we would rather have our child be able to independently eat a healthy, balanced, nourishing diet. Table etiquette rules can be implemented more fully at a slower pace after they’ve learned to acquire a taste for a well-balanced diet.
Creating a pleasant environment also means you are avoiding power struggles and stressful pressure on the child during the meal. Absolutely never, ever force feed a child! Don’t make them sit pouting at the table alone until they eat every last bite of food. Don’t require they stop eating a favorite food served with dinner because you feel they have already had too much. Part of enjoying a meal means the child feels a sense of control over their body, hunger cues and what enters their mouth. (If you’d like to learn more about this philosophy of feeding children, called The Division of Responsibility, The Ellyn Satter Institute is a great resource.)
Remember that the swirling smells and tastes of food and emotions at the table will mix together to form strong emotional memories during mealtimes. Caregivers have control over the mixture that will create a lifetime of emotional memories and food preferences.
Offer both preferred and non-preferred foods at meals and snacks.
First off, I want to emphasize the word offer. The definition of offer is to present or proffer (something) for (someone) to accept or reject as so desired. Yes, in offering food you are presenting it to your child with the option to either accept or reject. That’s ok.
Tell your child that placing the food on the table or on their plate is not a requirement for them to eat it. In fact, don’t even ask your child to eat it, just tell them that this is what you’ve prepared and are offering them for their meal. If asking or requiring them to eat it creates too much stress, we’ve destroyed step number one of creating an enjoyable environment necessary for any other strategies to work.
A caregiver’s responsibility is to choose what foods to buy, prepare and present to nourish your child. Your child’s responsibility is to decide what and how much of that food to eat.
Make a list of safe foods your child will almost always eat. When planning your meals and snacks, be sure that at least one of those foods is always served with the family meal (not separate from the family meal). So, your family meal on the table may include goldfish crackers with spaghetti and salad for dinner or chicken nuggets with scrambled eggs, toast and orange juice for breakfast.
Now, make a list of foods your child won’t eat consistently, but you’d like them to incorporate into their diets. Be sure to include at least one of these foods at meals and snacks. I recommend offering foods everyone else is eating at the meal or snack. It’s convenient to offer a small spoonful and if it’s not eaten, it’s a such small amount that it’s not a worry when it’s thrown away.
Remember that caregivers decide what is offered, not the child. The child give some input, but the caregiver has the responsibility to make the ultimate decision. Caregivers will want to choose foods for a balanced meal with starches, proteins, fruits and vegetables. Include at least one food the child feels safe with and will almost always eat. Also include a non-preferred food that you’d like them to eat, even if you’re sure it will be rejected.
Yes, food may go in the garbage because we will allow the child to eat the food or not. That’s ok. Because food has been thrown away is NOT a reason to be a short order cook or hurry and make a second meal. The important recipe here is exposing the food to the child in an enjoyable mealtime environment. Caregivers and children will have another chance in a few hours to perform their jobs again at the next meal or snack and again after that… You can always load up on safe foods and only include one non-preferred food if the child didn’t eat much at the last meal.
Encourage interaction (not necessarily eating) with non-preferred foods.
So far, we’ve created a pleasant mealtime environment without stress and have offered and introduced non-preferred foods into that safe environment.
For some children, just presenting a non-preferred food at mealtime, such as setting it on the table or serving it on their plate may be where you start with this step. They may not tolerate more than this. If that’s the case, don’t push any farther until they are comfortable with this minimal interaction of seeing it close by. Realize with the food even this close, they will be seeing what it looks like and smelling it, and really are interacting with some of the food’s sensory properties
From this point, you can slowly start to encourage and challenge the child to interact with the sensory properties of the food, while maintaining a safe and enjoyable environment. Look, smell, touch, listen to and finally taste the food. Ideally, interaction with the food should gradually get a little closer to the face and mouth until it is finally eaten.
Remember again that this step is where the child’s responsibility comes in to decide what and how much food they will eat. Every caregiver should absolutely respect the decision of the child. You can continue to encourage while maintaining a trusting relationship.
Support other caregivers without judgemental attitudes, especially the primary caregiver (usually Mom).
Feeding a child with feeding concerns is SOOOOO stressful! It’s hard to hide a caregiver’s stress from the child during mealtimes.
In my feeding therapy and my own mama experience, moms especially seem to carry a heavier load of guilt and worry if their child isn’t eating how they feel like they should. They also seem to hear and receive feedback and opinions from others sensitively, especially when they are already stressed.
Be supportive of the child and all caregivers. Share small successes. “She really liked helping me pass out carrots to the other children.” Or, “He seemed to enjoy making a smiley face out of his apple slices and even tasted it to his lips!”
Avoid pointing blame towards other caregivers. “If you were more strict, he’d eat more.” Or, “Well, he eats that at my house.”
Don’t sabotage mealtimes with treats, like unexpectedly showing up with a box full of donuts to eat just before dinner is being served. Ask the caregiver preparing the meal when an appropriate time would be to give treats and present it towards the end of the meal.
One caregiver can destroy a safe mealtime environment in every setting by force feeding. Never, ever force feed a child!
Seek out professional support sooner than later if these suggestions don’t help.
Talk with your pediatrician or seek out an experienced pediatric occupational or speech therapist who specializes in feeding therapy. They can help screen for and identify underlying conditions or delays that may be hindering progress with your child’s eating and give more individualized treatment ideas. Don’t wait to seek out more support. Children who receive treatment earlier have better outcomes and often times need less professional support because they’ve avoided further complications. If you’re trying to decide if your child needs more help, this earlier post I’ve written, “When Does Picky Eating Become a Problem?”, may be helpful.
I’d love to be able to help in your northern Utah home with any feeding concerns. Happy eating!