It’s that time of year again and little kids are climbing onto big yellow buses, tiny hands clutching lunch boxes that are packed full with a variety of choices, with their wishful parents praying that they will “just eat something!” But at the end of the day, especially if the child is a picky eater, parents sigh as they open the lunch box latch and see that lunch has barely been touched.
For children in feeding therapy, treatment doesn’t stop when a child is eating well in the clinic setting. Once a child has begun to eat even a limited variety of foods, I prefer to generalize new skills to the community environments as soon as possible, even as clinical treatment continues. The school cafeteria in the one hot spot in the community that most kids visit five times a week. It can be a chaotic setting, as described in one of my first blog posts for ASHA, which offered some tips on how to help kids eat in the Café-FEARia. But what can a parent do at home to encourage kids to bring a healthy lunch, even when they only eat only five to 15 foods? Here are six tips to encourage even the most hesitant eaters to not only eat preferred foods, but phase-in eating those new options showing up in their lunchboxes:
- Begin with Exposure: Kids may need to see a new food multiple times before they may even consider trying it. That means they need to see it at school too. If you’re thinking, “But he won’t eat it, so why pack it?” remember that the first step is helping your hesitant eater get used to the presence of that food in his lunch box again and again. The link to this ASHAsphere post will explain more, including why food doesn’t have to be eaten to serve a purpose in food education.
- Pack All the Choices under One Easy-Open Lid: For my school age clients, I use a compartment or bento-style lunchbox, such as EasyLunchboxes® or Yumbox®. Even little fingers can open the lids quickly to reveal their entire lunch, so no time is wasted when most kids in the public school system have about 20 minutes to enter, eat and exit the cafeteria.
- Give them Ownership in the Lunch Packing Process. Kids like predictability and need to feel a part of the process, especially when it comes to food exploration. For my clients in feeding therapy, once they have the oral motor and sensory skills to eat a few foods, those foods get packed along with other safe choices in their lunchbox. A child who is receiving tube feedings may still take a lunchbox if he or she is able to eat even a few foods orally. To make them the Lunchbox Leader, we create a poster board together that has a photo of the inside of their bento box, essentially creating a “packing map.”
Using colored markers, I help the child list the foods they can eat with arrows pointing to where the foods go in the box. For example, the Yumbox® has compartments with fun graphics representing dairy, grains, proteins, fruit and veggies. If the child is limited to purees, we write “applesauce” next to the fruit compartment on the poster. But we also write a few more future purees that he/she just needs to be exposed to, and those show up too. Parents and kids pack the lunchbox together the night before, and the kids choose from their short lists what goes in each compartment. If they have exactly five preferred foods and there are five compartments, then we create a rule that they need to pick a new food for at least one of the compartments.
- Include a Favorite, But Just Enough: Selective eaters always eat their favorite foods first, so be sure to include their preferred food, but not too much. Provide just enough so that you won’t be worried that they are starving, but not so much that the other less-preferred choices don’t stand a chance. That’s why the bento boxes work so beautifully, because the individualized compartments, along with the “map” to fill them, guide the packing process.
- No Comments Please! When the lunchbox comes home, resist the urge to unpack it immediately. Give everyone a chance to breathe, especially those kids with sensory challenges who have difficulty with transitions from one environment to another. When you eventually open it, no comments about the contents please! Nothing, not positive or negative. For many kids, it creates too much focus on whether they ate or not. That’s addressed in feeding therapy. For now, just wash it out and set it on the counter for your child to pack again later that evening.
- Keep Up with Other Strategies: Parents who have kids in feeding therapy understand that it’s a steady, step by step process. Keep up with strategies listed in this ASHAsphere post or this one and/or those recommended by your child’s therapist.
Whether you have a child in feeding therapy or a “foodie” with a palate that rivals a Top Chef, I encourage you to have all the kids in your family create a packing map and be responsible for their own lunch packing, with the kids choosing from each category while the parent provides the healthy food options and keeps the kitchen stocked. You might be surprised to see some of your young foodie’s choices shift to the more hesitant sibling’s packing map over time! Remember, it starts with exposure and builds from there.
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.