Thanksgiving Dinner and the Picky Eater

Guest Authored By Amanda Langan, M.A., CCC-SLP

“How do I get my child to eat more and different foods?” “My child refuses to eat anything healthy.” “Meal times are such a struggle!” These are statements and questions speech-language pathologists hear frequently by justifiably concerned parents during evaluations and treatment. Some of the hardest times of the day are meal times for families with picky eater children. And with the holidays approaching, often our family gatherings are focused around this topic: food. While meal times can seem like an unending battle, there are evidence-based approaches that can help reduce the struggle, foster a positive experience during meal times, and ultimately increase the tolerance, exploration, and consumption of foods by even the most challenging eaters.

Often parents believe that forcing the child to eat, rewarding a child with a tasty dessert, or waiting until they are ultimately “so hungry” are successful strategies in getting their children to eat their fruits and vegetables; however, ultimately this leads to a negative, stressful, and unsuccessful relationship with food for children who have aversions or a limited food repertoire. Evidence has shown that following the Sequential Oral Sensory (S.O.S.) Approach to Feeding has promoted increased acceptance and consumption of foods that children may otherwise deny or refuse. Developed by Dr. Kay Toomey, this approach focuses on the child as a whole, meaning the child’s sensory processing, oral-motor skills, and behavioral profile are all considered. Due to this multidisciplinary approach, you may find that your child can be working on feeding across professional disciplines, including: speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, or board certified behavior analysts.

The program begins with simple, playful, and low-pressure interaction with the food, from tolerating the food at the table to moving from touching, kissing, licking, tasting, and eventually consuming the food. How can you implement this at home, or better yet, at the Thanksgiving dinner table? The loud, bustling holiday meal time may already be daunting to a child with sensory processing difficulties, so creating an environment that promotes a successful and enjoyable meal time, without added pressure and forceful feeding, is crucial.

Below are some tips and strategies that may be implemented this Thanksgiving to achieve just that:

1. Don’t be afraid of play and be messy: Your child may be at the exploration stage with touch. Allow this to happen. Your child may play with the food by rolling and creating a “mashed potato snowman,” smashing the dinner roll into a flat surface to create “Thanksgiving pizzas” with other items served, pouring the gravy over the turkey to create a “rain shower,” making different shapes or letters with green beans, or making stuffing “kabobs” on a straw. Be creative! Allow your child to explore the different textures of food via touch in a playful way. They will be less likely to fear or reject the food in this low-pressure environment.

2. Work your way up to the mouth: You child may not be ready to physically consume the different foods quite yet. Allow your child to smell the foods first. Talk about the way each food smells and feels. Contrasting temperature, discussing the colors, size, shape. Open the dialogue. Model this for your child. If they see you smelling, kissing, and ultimately tasting the food in a positive way, they are more likely to imitate, as well.

3. Do not force or bribe your child, use “can” language: It may be tempting to show your child the delicious pie they may receive after they “clean their plate,” but this frames the dinner portion as something they “have to get through” rather than a positive and rewarding experience. Use “can” language (e.g., “Look! You can try to kiss the green bean like this!”). This eliminates the forceful mentality of the meal time and gives the child a sense of control over their own mealtime experience.

Mealtimes can be some of the most challenging parts of our day with children with feeding difficulties. With the added pressures and stresses of the holidays, it may feel like an unending battle. Using the strategies of the S.O.S. Feeding Approach will likely increase positivity and success with your child, ultimately increasing your child’s health and nutrition. Ask your child’s therapist about this approach, strategies, and things you can do at home to help increase the joy that mealtimes can bring.