As an SLP focused on the treatment of pediatric feeding disorders, there is one common denominator among all the families on my caseload: The stress in their homes at mealtimes is palpable. Now that Thanksgiving and other food-centered holidays are approaching, the anticipation of an entire day focused on food has many parents agonizing over the possible outcomes when well-meaning relatives comment on their child’s selective eating or special diet secondary to food allergies/intolerances.
This time of year, I try to find practical ways to reduce the stress for these families. One of the first steps in feeding therapy is for parents to lower their own stress level so that their child doesn’t feed into it (pardon the pun). I often address parent’s worries with a “What IF” scenario. I ask, “What’s your biggest fear about Thanksgiving?” The top 3 concerns are as follows:
What IF Junior won’t take a bite of Aunt Betty’s famous green bean casserole?
It’s not about the bite, it’s about wanting Aunt Betty’s approval. Focus on what Junior CAN do. If he can sprinkle the crispy onion straws on top of Betty’s casserole, call Betty ahead of time and ask if he can have that honor. Explain how you would love for him to learn to eventually enjoy the tradition of the green bean casserole and his feeding therapist is planning on addressing that skill in time. But, for now, she wants him to feel great about participating in the process of creating the green bean masterpiece. If Junior can’t bear to touch the food because he is tactile defensive, what can he do? Pick out the serving dish perhaps and escort Aunt Betty carrying the dish to the table? Taking the time to make Aunt Betty feel special by showing interest in her famous dish is all Betty and Junior need to feel connected.
What IF Grandpa Bob reprimands Junior for “wasting food” or not eating?
Keep portions presented on the plate quite small – a tablespoon is fine. Many families use ‘family-style” serving platters or buffet style, where everyone dishes up their own plate. Practice this at home. It’s not wasting food if Junior is practicing tolerating new foods on his plate. That food went to good use! If Grandpa Bob grew up during the Great Depression, this might be tough for him to understand. If he reprimands Junior, change the subject and tell Junior your proud of him for dishing up one whole brussel sprout! That requires some expert balancing and stupendous spoon skills!
What IF Junior gags or vomits?
Not surprisingly, this is the one sensory reaction that most relatives sympathize with and try desperately to avoid. Preparing the host ahead of time is gracious and appreciated. Preparing your child is helpful too and Stress Free Kids.com offers these tips. I recommend that parents identify what stimuli is most noxious to the child and talk with the host about those, offering assistance in preparing special food or supporting the host’s planned menu as much as possible. Bring a change of clothes for Junior, just in case, as well as a quiet activity for him to enjoy if you sense that the meal may be just too overwhelming for him. Plan other activities that don’t involve food to emphasize the message of the season: Being grateful.
Gather together with thankful hearts. That is the theme for this year’s Thanksgiving. Let go of the fear and ask “What IF Thanksgiving went just fine?” Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, treats children birth to teens who have difficulty eating. She is the author of Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids and the producer of the award-winning kids’ CD Dancing in the Kitchen: Songs that Celebrate the Joy of Food! Melanie’s two-day course on pediatric feeding is offered for ASHA CEUs and includes both her book and CD for each attendee. She can be reached at Melanie@mymunchbug.com.