Creating positive eating opportunities can be difficult due to various family demands (e.g., parent work schedules) and environmental restrictions (e.g., limited accessibility to quick, nutritious foods). Creating these opportunities also may initially require some planning and adjustments to the existing schedule.
Here’s a few things to remember in order to set realistic expectations before attempting to implement any changes:
Eating is hard. Your child isn’t lazy. Or a bad kid. Or just a behavior problem. Eating is the most complicated thing that children do. Skill is the end all and be all to feeding. If children do not have the skill set, be it oral or fine motor, they will not successfully complete the task. Children learn and develop avoidance behaviors (e.g., food refusal, screaming, throwing food) for tasks that they are unable to manage.
Eating is learned. Instinctual eating lasts until about 4-6 months of age, after which, eating becomes primarily driven by learned behaviors. Attending to hunger cycles is a learned behavior that is impacted by social and environmental demands and expectations.
Eating is not the body’s main priority. The body’s two main priorities are breathing and postural support, which enables the coordination of breathing, swallowing, and eating. If these areas are not being properly supported, children are unable to focus on the eating task before them.
Tip for promoting positive eating behaviors:
Create a structured environment: Children generally respond well to schedules similar to 3 meals/2 snacks per day. Ensure your child is hungry at meal times by limiting liquid consumption (e.g., juice, milk) and grazing between meals. Grazing is defined as eating sooner than every 2-2 ½ hrs, and children may consume up to 50% fewer calories in a day by grazing than if on a meal/snack schedule.
Create a routine: Routines will look different for each family, but they typically include a beginning (e.g., transition time from previous task to transition activity such as washing hands), middle (e.g., serving the meal family style and eating), and the end (e.g., clean up including clearing the table, putting items in the trash). One of the most important parts of the routine: completing the tasks together and eating with your child!
Provide structure during the meal: Have a specific place designated for meals. Ensure that children have a proper seat or chair appropriate for their size. They should be able to sit and reach their plate on the table without straining. Limit meal times to 30 minutes. If mealtimes are seemingly endless, they may create undo stress for both the parent and child in addition to behavior issues. If needed, use a timer or visual schedule to encourage your child to stay at the table for the duration of the meal.
Consider food presentation: Foods must be tailored to children’s developmental level, not their chronological age. Children typically need food presented 10x before they are comfortable interacting with and eating it. The most significant determinant to children liking a food is their familiarity with it. Limit the amount of foods presented at once so that the child is not overwhelmed, and always offer at least one preferred food.
Check out next week’s blog for a discussion on the familial impact of feeding difficulties.