While the start of a new school year is exciting and positive for many families, those who have children with feeding challenges are often faced with the struggle of how to handle lunchtime at school. Addressing these challenges at home is difficult enough but to carry strategies over to the lunchroom may seem near impossible.
Here are some suggestions that may help your child overcome feeding difficulties at school:
- Consider your child’s food preferences along with the importance of exposing him to new foods. Picky eaters and children with feeding challenges need multiple presentations of a new food before they will even consider touching or tasting it. Present the new food several times during home meals before sending it in a lunch. Don’t require him to touch or taste the food at first; just put it on the plate. It may take up to 20-30 exposures to the new food before he is ready to explore it further. Be patient and consistent.
- Have your child help in the decision making and preparation of his lunch. Make a “menu” of foods that he can choose to pack in his lunchbox. Add pictures if he can’t read. Divide it into categories (meat, fruit, veggies, etc.) and let him choose one item from each category. Include preferred and non-preferred items in the list. Try to keep the choices as nutritious as possible. Consider having one category called “new foods to try.” This would include unfamiliar foods that you want to expose him to (as discussed above). He may need some persuasion to check off one in this box, but remember it’s just about exposure.
- Get creative about packaging the food. Let him help you pick out a fun container with several little compartments (like a bento box) that you can fill with the things he chooses. Add dips for fruits and veggies like ranch, mustard, ketchup, or hummus. Try wrapping a sandwich with wrapping paper (like a present) or cut the sandwich into fun shapes with cookie cutters. Think outside the “sandwich” too. Make fruit and veggie kabobs. Make roll-ups by wrapping meat around a cheese stick or rolling up their favorite food in a tortilla. Send pasta, chicken nuggets, etc. in a thermos to keep warm.
- Consider sensory issues. Many children with feeding difficulties also have sensory issues. Does he prefer hot or cold foods? What about texture – soft? crunchy? Things like color, taste, and size can also affect what foods your child will eat.
- Reward positive behavior. If your child responds well to positive reinforcement, set up a reward system (like a sticker chart) and have him earn stickers or a reward by eating some of his lunch. If your child is sensitive to anxiety and this reinforcement would add to his stress about eating, then you might opt for just making a small positive comment if he chose to eat that day; no comments if he did not. Overall, keep things encouraging and positive!
Following these few suggestions will, hopefully, help make lunchtime a more enjoyable experience for your child and a less worrisome experience for you as a parent. Also, discuss your child’s feeding challenges with his teachers. Working together can create the most effective environment for feeding success.
Jennifer Sananikone, M.A. CCC-SLP, a speech – language pathologist with Speech & Occupational Therapy of North Texas, treats children birth to teens with speech, language and feeding challenges.