Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Reducing the Stress of Mealtimes for Picky Eaters

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Reducing the Stress of Mealtimes for Picky Eaters

Article excerpt

As a behavior analyst, I learned a long time ago, that fixing "bad" or ineffective routines was extremely difficult. However, creating new routines was always much easier.

THE REALITY VERSUS THE DREAM

For so many parents (with or without children on the autism spectrum), difficulties at mealtime are a daily reality and these struggles can make mealtimes one of the least preferred parts of their lives. Anticipating another battle royale over eating can often lead to anxiety and dread. For too many parents, mealtime is a daily ritual of unpleasant time with their children. This is simply not what we hoped and dreamed that raising children would be like. We never envisioned having to nag, beg, cajole and threaten our children into eating food. We want them to be a happy, well-nourished child, yet they often seem bound and determined to resist our efforts and eat only the things that are not good for them (or the same one or two items every day). As a result, over time, mealtimes have evolved into a desperate struggle to get some nutrition into a child who would rather starve than give in. All we really want is to be able to have a pleasant family dinnertime and our children to eat something other than the same thing every day maybe even something that is good for them. While most parents would love for this mythical event to be possible, for many it is simply not a reality.

RECOGNIZING THAT THE ROUTINE IS NOT WORKING

By the time we realize how much we struggle at mealtime, the pattern of unsuccessful and unpleasant mealtimes is often so ingrained (for both the child and the parent) that it is not easy to change. The good news is that, as with all routines (particularly ineffective or non-preferred ones), they can change. However, the way to fix them does not lie in the mealtime routine. A real solution to this problem will require us to create a new mealtime routine. As a behavior analyst, I learned a long time ago, that fixing "bad" or ineffective routines was extremely difficult. However, creating new routines was always much easier. So when I encounter a mealtime routine (or any other routine) that is going badly (for both the parents and the child), my first inclination is to find a way to develop a new routine around eating, rather than try to make the currently ineffective routine work. There is almost always too much bad history and habits to overcome (for both the parents and the child).

To be clear here, I am talking about children who are selective eaters, not about children who refuse to eat and are at risk of serious medical consequences due to malnutrition and other health impacts of food refusal. For those children, specialized medical and behavioral intervention should be sought. But, for those children who prefer a limited set of (often not so nutritious) foods--and will argue, whine, throw a tantrum and, in general, make the lives of parents and caregivers difficult until they finally concede and give them the foods they want (or the child leaves without having eaten the foods their parents have prepared)--change is possible.

ENVISIONING THE CHANGE

As parents and caregivers we want our children's behavior to change, however we often fail to recognize that in order for that to happen we must first change our behavior. It is simply a fact that as long as we continue to do the things that are not working, they will continue to not work. We tend to see our children as obstinate or inflexible, without recognizing that we are both "stuck" in a routine or pattern that is not leading in the direction we would like to go. The first steps down this road are for us to recognize that we need to make the change and then for us to decide what that changed routine would be in our ideal version of mealtime. We literally need to "rethink" what mealtime is and can and could be for us as a family.

When I ask parents and caregivers what they would like mealtime to look like in an ideal world, they often find this very difficult, they have followed the pattern for so long, they have a hard time seeing any other way. …

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