Research shows that children in families that eat dinner together on a regular basis experience many mental, emotional and physical advantages. The Family Dinner Project cites the following evidence-based benefits of consistent family meals:
Better academic performance
Greater sense of resilience
Lower risk of substance abuse
Lower risk of teen pregnancy
Lower risk of depression
Lower likelihood of developing eating disorders
Lower rates of obesity
Better family relationships
Yet, family meals can also be stressful, especially when a child has sensory processing issues that make the tastes, textures and temperatures of certain foods preferable to others. This can severely limit the range of foods your child will be willing to eat and can be frustrating for the whole family. Here are some suggestions for minimizing conflict and maximizing enjoyment during family meals.
Expose children to new foods gradually
Occupational therapist Moira Pena of Toronto’s Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation, says many children on the autism spectrum experience tremendous anxiety in advance of meals. “In my practice, I’ve worked with kids who are truly fearful of certain foods placed in front of them,” says Pena. “It’s important to appreciate and understand that these fears are just as powerful as, say, a fear of snakes or big spiders. With this in mind, I begin to use the principles of gradual exposure [exposing the child to the feared food in small steps] to help them learn to control and eventually get rid of these fears.”
Let your child play with food
No worries! Food play doesn’t have to take place at the dinner table. Yet, letting a child with sensory processing difficulties play with their food is a great way to help them to feel comfortable tasting it. “Encourage your child to interact with food through his or her senses,” says Pena. “Talk about the look and feel of foods. Make interesting shapes with cookie cutters, etc. Think of it as “food school,” and reserve some time each week to engage in food learning through play,” says Pena.
Give your child choices
Forcing children to eat foods they don’t like, or insisting they eat everything on their plates is a losing battle that is likely to make mealtime a battleground. Instead, give your child a choice between eating a food they prefer and a new food and allow them to make the decision.
You can also give your child the food they choose along with a small portion of the food the rest of the family is eating. Over time, they may be inclined to give it a try.
Use positive reinforcement
Instead of punishing children for unwillingness to try new foods, bad table manners and other undesirable mealtime behaviors, reward positive behaviors such as trying a bite of a new food, by giving a child something special they value such as extra computer time, or better yet, some one on one time with a parent.
Stick to the routine
All children, but particularly those on the spectrum do best when they know what to expect. Whenever possible, endeavor to serve dinner at the same time every night. Allow your child to choose a regular seat and have other family members maintain their nightly places at the dinner table as well.
Consult with a physician or therapist as needed
If you suspect that there is a medical reason for your child’s mealtime difficulties, be sure to consult with a professional. Gastrointestinal, cardiopulmonary and pharmaceutical issues may all contribute to eating issues. Oral-motor feeding problems resulting from low tone and muscle weakness are also common in children on the autism spectrum. Oral motor exercises provided by a doctor, OT or PT can all be helpful in improving oral-motor skills.