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Feeding Disorders: How Can I Help at Home?

Having a child with a feeding disorder can be frustrating. Your child may refuse entire food groups, eat only 1 or 2 foods, or have a tantrum every time he is placed in his high chair.

While weekly feeding therapy sessions can help overcome these challenges, parents often ask what they can do at home to help their child progress.

How can I, as a parent, help encourage appropriate mealtime or feeding behavior?

Parents need to model mealtime skills and integrate the toddler into a family mealtime routine. Parents are in charge of the menu. They can offer new foods, but do not force the toddler to eat them. Parents reintroduce rejected foods to expand the child’s exposure to new foods. Parents calmly eat all offered food off of their own plates, providing a healthy model for the toddler.

When your child engages in any appropriate mealtime behavior, parents should encourage these good behaviors by providing enthusiastic attention and praise right away. It helps to use descriptive praise to tell your child exactly what you liked or are praising them for. For example, rather than saying, “Good job,” you might say, “John, great work taking that bite of yogurt by yourself!". Do this even when your child licks, tastes or bites a piece of the new food, even if he does not fully accept the bite.

Ignore unwanted mealtime behaviors, such as complaining or tantrums. Ignoring means that you remove all attention. Don’t make any verbal or facial expressions in response to these inappropriate behaviors. Simply providing eye contact during tantrums is often enough attention to keep the tantrum fueled.

Keeping meal times consistent and structuring mealtime will help to create a positive environment. Set clear expectations and boundaries.

If your child currently does not sit at the table or a designated spot for meals, start with a short amount of time that your child is willing to stay there. This might be as brief as five minutes. It is often helpful to use a timer that the child can see and/or easily hear, as the concept of time may still be foggy (e.g., “five minutes” may sound much longer to a child than to an adult). As your child is able to tolerate that period of time, slowly increase the amount of time at the table until you reach a typical meal time of 15 to 30 minutes.

Continue to promote a balanced diet. Try not to express your own dislikes, since most children will notice and copy this behavior. Children will explore new, healthy foods that they see their family eating.

Continue to offer new foods several times. Most children require being exposed to a new food around 20 times before they will try or accept it. Begin with only small bites or a small portion of new foods and verbally introduce the food as you would for foods you know the child already likes. Avoid saying things like, “Ok this food is new and you may not like it but let’s try it.” Your child might try a new food but spit it out or say negative things about the food, however, this doesn’t mean that one day he won’t come to eat it.

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