By Stefanie LaManna, CCC-SLP, CNT
Whether a child is a picky eater or has a diagnosed feeding or swallowing disorder, holiday meals can come with a lot of added stress—for both the child and their caregivers.
There are many reasons why a child may have difficulty eating. For some, it can be a phase—part of natural development where a child is asserting independence (typically, during the toddler years). For others, it may be due to sensory sensitivities (e.g., sensitive to certain textures or smells), developmental disorders, or feeding and swallowing disorders. Although some children will eventually become more diverse eaters, for others, feeding challenges can remain into adulthood.
It’s important for families to understand that feeding difficulties are often not under anyone’s control. Keeping that understanding in mind—and sharing it with family and friends—can help.
DO prepare your child as much as possible. Talk about the foods that will be served ahead of time. Try to get as many details as possible from your host. If you can’t, explain to your child that you may not know everything that will be provided, but you will do your best to have something available that they like. Talk through what’s expected (i.e., even if you don’t eat what’s on the table, you may need to sit through the whole meal because it is about more than food).
DO involve your child in food preparation/cooking. This is a great opportunity to explore possibilities and introduce children to unfamiliar textures and smells. This can help make new foods seem less overwhelming to them. Children may want to taste new foods as they are being prepared, especially if they are cooking with a grandparent, cousin, or family friend.
DO make food presentation fun. Pinterest and other websites have ample ideas for themed foods such as a cheese ball or a vegetable platter in the shape of a turkey or pumpkin. Using cookie cutters to present foods in special shapes can go a long way. Themed plates, placemats, and place cards can also make a meal appealing and help children have a positive attitude toward their food. Many children also like meals provided “family style,” where they can serve themselves.
DO set expectations for others. Prior to a meal, share with grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other family members how you handle your child’s eating. Let them know that they shouldn’t feel offended (even if the child says “ew” or “gross”) or concerned—and that you appreciate their respect for your choices.
DO seek out helpful resources. Learn more about feeding challenges in children—including what’s typical and what’s not—from ASHA. Get tips and advice for dealing with feeding challenges of all types from the Family Dinner Project’s The Welcoming Table series.
DON’T feel guilty about your child’s eating habits. Family members and friends will have opinions about how they would change what you’re doing and how meals were handled when they were a child. Keep in mind that many people have children who are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to their eating habits, even though they were raised (and fed) the same way.
DON’T make your child’s eating the focus of mealtime. Avoid the urge to make your child’s food intake the center of the conversation. This can make the meal less enjoyable for your child—and everyone else!
DON’T shame or bribe your child. There’s nothing wrong with a little positive encouragement to “try a bite,” but repeated coaxing may produce nothing but frustration. Avoid shaming your child for not tasting a particular food or not eating enough. You don’t want to make them feel bad about something they can’t control. Bribing a child (e.g., take x number of bites to “earn” dessert) rarely if ever results in a long-term healthy diet or positive approach to eating. Encourage your child to listen to their body and learn about their hunger and fullness cues.
DON’T hesitate to make backup plans. Although children should be given a chance to eat what everyone else is having at the table, it’s okay to serve them foods they’re familiar with if that will help them be in an environment that can be overwhelming. Prepare one dish ahead of time that you know they will eat.
DON’T be reluctant to ask for professional help. Feeding challenges can range in severity. If you have any questions or concerns, talk to your child’s pediatrician. You can also visit a certified speech-language pathologist (SLP) for a feeding and/or swallowing evaluation. SLPs help people with feeding and swallowing disorders to safely eat, accept new foods, and develop and maintain a positive relationship with eating—in individual feeding therapy as well as in groups with peers who have similar challenges. Find a certified SLP at www.asha.org/profind. Look for one that specializes in feeding and swallowing.
Learn more about feeding challenges, and how SLPs can help, at www.asha.org/public/speech/swallowing/feeding-and-swallowing-disorders-in-children/.
Stefanie LaManna, CCC-SLP, CNT, is associate director of health care services in speech-language pathology for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and a pediatric feeding specialist.
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