Child Therapy: Strategies for Mealtime

Five of Step by Step Care Group’s therapists in Chicago attended the S.O.S. Sequential Oral Sensory Approach to Feeding Convention in Peoria, IL from July 16-19, 2015. After meeting with the therapists, it became apparent that they had returned from the conference with a plethora of new tips, strategies, and research on feeding. I will be creating a series on feeding based on the information they learned and shared.
Family mealtime is a crucial part of the feeding process. Mealtime should be a stress-free, enjoyable time for the whole family. Below are some strategies to implement at home for a successful mealtime.
Social Modeling
There should be at least one adult at the table to model the appropriate behavior for mealtime. The food should be the focus of mealtime and conversations should be centered on the food. The adult can describe the different types and textures of the meal. They can show how to explore the food in front of them and exaggerate the movement of chewing food. If your child eats the food differently, imitate their way and then model your chewing after.  Not only should you model during mealtime, but children should watch you prepare the meal as well. They should help prepare a meal at least once a week.
Structuring Mealtimes and Snacks
There should be 3 main mealtimes a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A few snacks should also be eaten in between meals. There should be a clear cue that it is a mealtime, whether that cue is putting out placemats, sitting at the same table, or creating the meal with your child. Give your child one responsibility, such as setting the table, in order to structure the mealtime. Once the child realizes it is mealtime, create a clear beginning and end to the meal. For example, start by washing hands and end by throwing out scraps of food from the meal in the trash. Throughout the meal, families should eat family style and have a conversation about each food they put on the table. Interacting with the food is an important step in the feeding process. Mealtimes should only last 15-30 minutes!
Reinforcement
Despite what many think, there are many steps to eating. The process involves tolerating the food in their presence, interacting with it, smelling it, touching it, and tasting it before the child can eat the food.  Each of these steps in the process needs positive reinforcement! Praise your child for looking, smelling, or holding the food. The more they feel supported, the easier it will be for them to adjust.
Accessing the Cognitive
Exposing oneself to a new food can be intimidating. Comparing the food to something they are used to will help your child accept, and hopefully try, the unfamiliar food. For example, if you have peanut butter cereal puffs, you can compare the taste to the peanut butter they eat on toast. Accessing the cognitive also means to get on the same cognitive level as your child. From age 2-7, children are still in the magical stage of thinking. For example, if your child thinks the unfamiliar food is scary then you can pretend to wave a magic wand that makes the food taste good. Be creative!

Remember to keep the focus on the food and take the pressure off the child’s eating. The more structure and routine there is surrounding family mealtime, the more familiar the child will become with the expectations. Click here for tips on creating an inviting mealtime atmosphere.