Fort Worth, Texas,
11:40 AM

4 Ways To Help A Problem Eater Feel Comfortable

A speech language pathologist offers advice on feeding and swallowing problems

Joining together with family and friends for a meal can be an important part of our social lives. Chances are you know a child who is a picky eater or even a problem eater. You work hard to make sure your guests feel welcome in your home.

But do they feel welcome at your table?

As a Speech Language Pathologist, I frequently see kids with feeding and swallowing problems. Many of these kids are more than just picky eaters. Their diet consists of only a handful of foods they are willing to eat, and they are usually particular about how it’s prepared and presented.

Parents struggle with meeting the nutritional needs of their children, but there’s a social aspect of this that makes it difficult during social gatherings too.

Parents have told me they avoid family and friends’ get-togethers because their child’s eating habits ignite unwanted and hurtful advice and comments.

Recently, while attending a picnic, I was able to see the stress that feeding problems for one child can create for a whole family. Not long after we sat down at a table, another family asked if they could join us. The Mom went to get some drinks and the daughter sat her lunch box on the table. The Dad seemed to be uncomfortable. He motioned at the tent where the food was laid out and said, “She probably won’t eat anything here.” The young girl looked around our table, pulled her knees up to her chest and became quiet.

What I saw as a fun and relaxing lunch was clearly stressful and uncertain for her. Throughout lunch, I could tell that the parents were waiting for me to ask why their daughter brought her own food to a picnic, but I didn’t need to ask. I knew. We started talking about something other than food and everyone seemed to exhale in relief.

If you are hosting an event and inviting children with food issues, here are some things you can do to help them feel more comfortable.

1.Plan ahead. Call the parent and ask if there is something specific you can have available for their child to eat. They won’t eat turkey, but they like chicken strips? Great. Pop some in the oven and include them in your Thanksgiving meal.

2.Let the parent take the lead. Maybe the child is a big fan of macaroni and cheese, but only the way their Mom makes it. Wonderful. If mom wants to bring that to the barbeque, it would be a great addition to your menu. If she wants to bring something special just for the child, welcome and encourage her to do so.

3.Focus on the positive. Ask the child what she likes. Let her know that you share some of the same favorites. Try to avoid talking about the things she doesn’t like or even offering them. This will end with several refusals and comments about what is or isn’t on her plate.

4.Be OK with an empty plate. Sometimes family gatherings involve a lot of people, a lot of noise and a lot of activity that can be overwhelming. The child may skip the meal all together or may sit at the table and not eat. Either way, focus on spending time together and put the importance on the child, not on the food.

Gatherings with our families and friends can be some of our most cherished memories. It’s important to remember that kids with feeding problems and their parents really struggle with these events. Gaining a better understanding of feeding problems will enable you to show love and support to the kids working through these challenges and help them look forward to their next visit with you.

About the author

Julie Schmidt is a speech pathologist at Cook Children's. Speech/language pathologists focus on oral motor, speech, language and communication skills to enhance development, restore function and to prevent disability from pediatric conditions, illness or injury.

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