So, here's an easy way to add some fun to your food. These edible eyeballs might make food more appealing to your child. Or, at the very least, it can be a way to add some fun to the mealtime. My daughter enjoyed eating the eyes and then giggling, "oh no, you can't see anything!" Little things like this can make a huge difference when trying to make mealtimes more enjoyable!
Yes, those words came out of my 3 year old this morning! My daughter has been helping me make smoothies some mornings. My goals have been to expose her to different fruits and vegetables, let her have control about what she puts in her smoothies, and teach her some self-help skills. Typically, I just put out a bunch of ingredients and she puts them together how she pleases. She loves being able to say that she made it for the family. I always include some greens but today we were all out and I happened to catch this adorable moment on video!
This is an example of why positive associations are so crucial! She would've never wanted to eat the greens plain, but loves to put it in the smoothie and watch it blend in with the berries. This is a method I use to teach her to turn things she might not like into something she will by blending flavors.
My daughter will only eat one or two slices of a raw apple but will eagerly scarf down an entire apple when it's steamed. Steaming the apple requires minimal effort and makes it soft and a little more sweet. These are the simple steps I take:
1. Core and slice - don't worry about he peels, they come off easily once it's steamed.
2. Place the slices in a steamer basket and put the basket in a saucepan with a few inches of water (don't let the water touch the apples).
3. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Let it boil until the apples are tender and can be pierced easily with a fork (about 5 minutes). You can very gradually keep them in for less time to get your child used to a harder texture and work up to raw apples.
4. Let it cool and peel the skin if desired. I encouraged my daughter to peel the skin herself to give her some extra exposure with it and because it's an awesome fine motor task! Eventually I will encourage her to try some bites with the skin on.
With the exception of the one slice she reluctantly gave up to her baby brother (another bonus - good for babies!) she devoured an entire apple in a couple minutes and asked for more!
I wanted to switch gears for a post and talk about another common mealtime challenge - the pokey eater. Do mealtimes seem to go on forever in your home, your child continuing to pick at their meal for a long time after everyone else is finished? I wanted to share a simple strategy to help with the pokey eater - the visual timer! A visual timer is great even for very young children because they are able to see how much time is left. It serves as a prompt to remind your child to keep taking bites and makes it that you don't have to be the one constantly providing verbal reminders. Here's what one looks like (this one is called the Time Timer and is sold on Amazon):
There are also apps for smartphones that do a good job. Here is an example of free iOS app called "Countdown" that I use in my home. It allows you to choose a custom photo to use and the color of the timer changes to red as time runs out. My daughter loves to be surprised with a new photo each time.
It's simple, but it's effective!
Many families of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) encounter feeding challenges. Though the estimated prevalence rates of feeding challenges among those with ASD vary greatly in the literature, there is general consensus that they are more prevalent than in the general population. These challenges are associated with the core symptoms of ASD. Here's how:
1. Social Interaction Difficulties
Feeding is a social experience from infancy. From the start, typically developing babies learn behaviors such as leaning in towards the caregiver and opening their mouths. When this social component doesn't develop or is delayed, feeding can be impacted. Further, it may be challenging or aversive for a child with ASD to participate in the social aspects of feeding. For example, there are many social components to sitting down at snack time or the school cafeteria. If those components are challenging, mealtimes may be negatively impacted.
What can we do?
Look at the entire picture. The social skills required to participate in a mealtime can be thought of as a prerequisite. If a child doesn't even want to sit down with peers at snack time or with the family at dinner time, the actual eating part is bound to be affected. Work on one step of the equation at a time.
2. Language and Communication Difficulties
ASD is also associated with difficulties in communication, which can have a big impact on mealtime behaviors. Effective communication is so important for a successful mealtime. Children communicate their needs and desires throughout a mealtime: "I want more of that," "I don't like the taste of this," "I'm hungry," "I'm full," and so on. So, you can imagine how not being able to effectively communicate these things can lead to challenging behaviors during meals. The child that can't communicate that he's all done and keeps being offered food is bound to cry, scream, throw food, etc.
What can we do?
Give children a way to communicate their needs effectively. For a child that is nonverbal, it may be providing a photo to show that he is all done, or a sign to request "more." I'll devote a post to this in the future.
3. Behavior Challenges
The final core symptom associated with ASD is behavioral challenges. In regards to feeding, here are some common ones that can have a big impact:
Ritualistic behaviors/need for routine: the child needs to eat the same food in the same environment (same spot at the table, food presented on the same plate, with the same silverware, etc.).
Attention to detail: children may refuse food based on what seem like minute details to us. For example, I've worked with multiple children that wouldn't eat food that was broken or that was presented outside of a wrapper.
Sensory difficulties: This is where texture difficulties come into play. Many children with ASD will refuse entire groups of textures. For example, a child might only eat foods that are crunchy but avoid anything that feels "mushy" in the mouth.
What can we do?
Introduce change in gradual steps. Show the child that change can be associated with positive outcomes. For example, you might just change spots at the table and really praise flexibility with trying something new. Make simple changes before you do anything about the food. I'll talk more about how to do this in future posts, as well.
The literature tells us that feeding challenges in children with ASD tend to be more prevalent, more restrictive, and longer lasting than what we might see in a "typical picky eater." The most important implication is to act early! As soon as you notice challenges, intervene. Waiting for a child to "grow out of it" will only cause stress and bigger problems down the road. Stay tuned for coming posts with more information about simple interventions you can implement!
Many studies have shown that children aren't getting the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables per day. I created this fruit and veggie chart (based on recommended servings for young children) as a simple strategy to use in my home and thought I'd share it with you! Here's why this could work to up fruit and veggie consumption in your children:
1. It serves as a visual to show them how much they have left to eat in the day. You can choose to pair it with a daily or weekly reward for meeting the goals.
2. Tracking progress makes us more aware of what we are eating and more likely to up consumption.
3. Using this might keep you, the parent or caregiver, more accountable. Research shows us that children eat more fruits and vegetables if their parents do. It's hard to expect them to eat more if we aren't leading by example. So, model using the chart yourself by eating the foods you want your child to eat and checking them off the chart!
To use it, we pick a color for each family member using it and do a check mark for every food consumed that day. Use it however works for you or simply use the idea for foods you're working on in your home! Download by clicking on the file below.
Research studies tell us that children that have food neophobia (the fear of new foods) are also children that are sensitive to tactile stimuli. In other words, they often don't like to get their hands messy. We also know that a child who is unlikely to want to touch something, is even less likely to want to eat it. So, what do we do? Create repeated positive tactile experiences without the pressure of eating. Here is an example of a fairly easy activity: digging for treasure in Jello!
You can suspend items in jello in a couple different ways:
1. Make a batch, let it harden, put items in, add another batch on top
2. Make a batch, wait until it starts to thicken and push items into the middle (I used this method here)
I used toy airplanes and gummies in our dig for treasure, but you can use whatever your child is into. Or, if they love jello, put in new foods that you want to expose them to such as fruit! Then you can encourage them to take bites, lick the jello off, or even just expose them to touching the fruit by digging it out of the jello.
Jello is a fun tool because it also is a great exposure to smells. However, keep that in mind if your child is sensitive to smell!
You can also push items into the jello while you dig for an extra texture to touch - we did cereal.
Encourage different interactions: smells, licks, tastes. It's also a good idea to keep wipes or a washcloth on hand and tell your child that they can use wipe it off at any point if it becomes uncomfortable. Remember, this should be a positive experience with no pressure!
Here are a number of different utensils you can use to make trying new foods a little more fun. Mixing up something as simple as a utensil also teaches a child that change is OK and trying something new can be a positive experience.
1. Toothpick: not only is it fun for kids to spear things, but it is also a great fine motor task. In addition to use toothpicks just as utensils, you can make mini "fruit kebab" skewers. Get the colored toothpicks and incorporate some sorting and counting into your mealtime as well! You can also look for the plastic cocktail toothpicks at the grocery store or the umbrella ones that go in drinks. Lots of possibilities!
2. Tongs: A simple search on Amazon will show you a wide array of mini tongs perfect for little hands grasping food. You can go with the basic colorful ones or more exciting ones with little hands on the ends.
3. The Nuk Brush is often used for oral motor sensory input and has been shown effective in the research in increasing food consumption by using it to distribute food in the mouth.
4. A Chinese soup spoon. Use it on the big side as intended or flip it around to practice drinking from the handle side.
5. Other foods! The possibilities are endless here. Pretzels to dip into different new foods or spear food with, banana to lick yogurt off of, and so on. The beauty of this one is that you can use a new food as a utensil to introduce different textures without the pressure of eating. For example, if your child loves yogurt and you would like them to eat apples, use the apple as a utensil to eat the yogurt with! The exposure to touching and licking food off the apple can add to future willingness to try the apple itself.
Even just switching up colors and shapes of the utensils you are using can make a huge difference. What else can you think of?
Picky eating is a common concern for parents of preschoolers. Both in my experience as a consultant and in reading the research literature on food selectivity, it is clear that parents gravitate towards a few common feeding "solutions" with their picky eaters. These are outlined below as well as ideas for more effective, long-term solutions.
Common Solution #1: Offering the same foods in the same environments
You want your child to try new foods, but after a long day, who needs that added stress? Parents often stick to what they know works. Do you find yourself making the same two foods for dinner on the regular? Or allowing your child to eat in their spot in front of the TV just to get some calories in them? No need to be embarrassed - you're certainly not alone.
Why it's a problem:
Every time you allow your child to have the same food in the same environment, you continue to build a history that this is how it will be. Every time makes it that much harder to change it in the future.
What to do instead:
You don't need to make drastic changes. Think of little changes you can make just to teach flexibility to start. Change one little thing about the meal every day. At first, it doesn't even have to be about trying new foods. Some examples include:
- Cut the grilled cheese sandwich a different way
- Move the chair where your child sits
- Use different plates or utensils
- Add food coloring to foods to make them look different without changing the taste
- Add something different (but preferred) onto the plate
Essentially, you are teaching your child that meals don't need to stay the same but that change isn't stressful. If you jump right into offering a totally different meal, you show your child that change is stressful. This way, you can have fun with it while working your way up to trying new foods. Make sure you praise tolerance of change!
Common Solution #2: Allowing "drive-by" grazing
Your child won't eat at the table with the family, so in desperation to get something in them you allow them to come grab bites in between other activities such as playing.
Why it's a problem:
Your child learns that this is what mealtimes look like. The social and communication aspects of mealtime are lost, and eventually it will be very difficult to change this habit.
What to do instead:
Encourage sitting at mealtime without the pressure of eating food. Start with just a few minutes. Many families will start fun family traditions such as sharing exciting parts of the day, singing a song, or playing a game. At first, have your child come sit down for a couple minutes and make that time as fun as possible. Gradually introduce a plate with food and model eating while enjoying the social aspect of mealtime.
Consider the expectations for your child. If you tend to have a long, social family mealtime, make sure the expectations for your child are realistic and developmentally appropriate. A good rule of thumb is to expect 2-5 minutes per a child's year of age. So a four year old may be able to sit still at the table for between 8 - 20 minutes.
Common Solution #3: Feeding your child at a separate time from the rest of the family
Feeding your picky eater is a stressful experience, so you want to get it over with before the rest of your family eats.
Why it's a problem:
Your child becomes accustomed to mealtime being solely about food consumption and you miss out on family social time.
What to do instead:
First, this requires a philosophical change to view mealtime as about more than just consuming food. Even if you are initially focusing on feeding your child separately, still have him come sit with the family (as discussed in #2 above). You can also offer highly preferred foods for sitting with the family and work on introducing new foods at the other times.
Keep in mind that the common "solutions" outlined above are short-term fixes. It may be easy to just give in and make a special meal or let your child graze all day instead of join mealtimes. It may take away some stress. However, you are creating a long-term problem. Long-term solutions will take much more time and will have to happen in very small steps. As I've written before, celebrate and praise the small successes!
Photos used under creative commons by sung hoon Choi,
"Hey cat, you want to jump in the ketchup?" asked my 2 year old daughter as she dipped her cookie cutter omelet cat into her ketchup and then into her mouth. "This is soooo silly!"
Cookie cutters are a must have tool for playing with food and encouraging trying new foods. They are inexpensive, easy, and mess free! Here is just an example of how we used it with a thin egg omelet. Other foods you can use them with include: bread and tortillas to spread new foods on, lunch meat, fruits, potato pancakes, etc. The possibilities are endless! If you are looking for shapes small enough for small foods, look for play dough tools.