Meal-time Meltdowns: Sensory Kids
For most of us, mealtime is a heaven-send. Food cures cases of the grumps. The varieties of flavors and textures trigger positive chemical releases in the brain. Filling your stomach creates a sense of satisfaction and overall contentment. What’s not to enjoy? Well, anyone who knows a picky eater, especially if you’re the parent of one, you know that mealtimes can be everything but pleasant. And it goes one step past picky when you’re dealing with a child that struggles with eating because of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).
Picky eaters usually grow out of the phase of turning their noses up at their plates. But Sensory Kids usually don’t grow out of that pesky stage. Imagine someone refusing to eat anything but chicken nuggets and Mac and Cheese until they’re in their twenties (true story). They tend to have a harder time with the texture of food than they do the taste. Mushy foods top the list of offenders with foods such as mashed potatoes, oatmeal, rice, beans or eggs. Children with SPD tend to gag a lot while eating or while watching others eat and bite more off than they can chew in a very literal meaning of the phrase. Whether in an attempt to minimize the discomfort by getting it all down at once or the inability to gauge their limits, they try to swallow chunks of food that are way too big. This problem is compacted with children who have low muscle tone in their cheeks and jaws, making chewing arduous and frustrating. All these cues are difficult for them to interpret so they express their feelings with difficult behavior (and by that I mean total meltdowns) at the table and refusal to eat the food prepared for them. So here are a few suggestions to help minimize mealtime meltdowns.
Sitting down to an activity that’s uncomfortable is stressful enough without adding the pressures of a formal setting. Snacks, games and laughter can help diffuse the stress and help your child better connect to the family and the situation. Also make sure to try and keep things short. Drawing out the length of the meal can compound the stress.
Change it up
To help your child out, try preparing and presenting the foods they struggle with in a different way. If mashed potatoes make your kid cringe, try baked potatoes with their favorite topping or slicing them up and frying them in a pan. Present them oats in granola bars instead of oatmeal. If breakfast protein is difficult, try this recipe for protein waffles. Another way to change things up is to make sure the meals are easy and quick to eat. Healthy shakes and drinks make the meal quick and don’t frustrate them with slow meals that require a lot of cutting or chewing.
Change the Venue
Eating outside provides them with the sensory input they need and gives them a chance to play and eat at the same time. And sometimes eating in a new or different place removes the stress and negative emotions they may have built up toward your own dinner table. I know my picky eater puts up less resistance at Grandma’s house when there is pressure to eat is less.
Too hot? Too cold? Major problem. At least for these kids. Something as simple as the temperature being off can ruin a meal for them. Be alert and see if your child is more inclined to one temperature or the other, or maybe they like it at room temperature only. That way you can plan meals that suit their taste.
Strengthen Muscle Tone
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the phrase “but it’s too hard” come out of my picky one’s mouth while trying to encourage him to eat. Eating can seem as daunting as climbing a mountain if your child’s muscles aren’t strong enough to eat their food without tiring. Some children may need intervention through speech and occupational therapy like what we do at our center, but there are some fun activities you can do with them at home too. Blowing bubbles, whistles and balloons all contribute to facial muscle tone as well as giving the lungs a good work out. Holding their breath and letting it out slowly or learning to play a wind instrument are both good exercises for building muscle tone.
Play with your Food
Sensory Kids learn best through play. Allowing them to build animals or objects with their mashed potatoes (my personal best feat was a mashed potato coliseum), stack their crackers or run their fingers through their jello gives them an opportunity to associate with the texture and consistencies before they try to handle them in their mouths.
Work Through Steps
At first they may only be able to handle playing with the food, but as I mentioned, that can help them adjust to the things about the food they don’t like and they can get used to the idea of the food. Then they may venture into taking a small bite. If they don’t think they can swallow it, challenge them to hold it in their mouths for a few seconds before spitting it out. Hopefully, that can lead them to being comfortable eating it as a regular meal item.
Eating may be a process, but if you work with them and learn the preferences and limits, you can work through those kinks and issues to a happy mealtime and a healthy tummy.
Welcome to the Sensory Blog Hop — a monthly gathering of posts from sensory bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and The Jenny Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about what it’s like to have Sensory Processing Disorder and to raise a sensory kiddo! Want to join in on next month’s Sensory Blog Hop? Click here!
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