I’ve had the opportunity to meet many children of different ages since I began working with selective eaters. In 2016 I became the Director of the Healthy Beginnings program and since then, the most common request that I receive from parents as we plan to work on behavior at mealtime is; can we come for dinner? This is a completely reasonable request. After all, mornings are often busy with getting the kids off to school and parents off to work. Some children (and adults too) have difficulty waking. On top of that, no one wants their child to miss school and it can be challenging to request time off from work.
Over the past decade, I’ve learned that the timing of meal sessions is key to address food selectivity. As behavior analysts, we love data. And the data that we have collected in our program is clear. Children who see us first thing in the morning learn to eat new foods at a quicker pace and they have more foods in their repertoire at the end of intensive therapy than children who only have feeding appointments in the afternoon. After some thought, it became clear that the afternoon children are sandwiched in between meal times. Thus, the child has likely had breakfast, possibly lunch or a morning snack, and then we expect them to eat new foods, something that for most of the kids that we work with is highly aversive. On top of that, kids are smart enough to know that their parents aren’t going to let them go hungry at dinner time. As a result, the motivation to eat new foods isn’t there. We often try and contrive motivation with toys, videos, and attention, but in most cases, the motivation to get out of eating novel foods is greater than the motivation for earning access to toys.
This information isn’t groundbreaking. With ABA feeding therapy, being hungry is key and thus it is best to work on eating new foods before the child has had anything to eat that day and when the family has the time to fully attend to the child. My recommendation for parents:
- Introduce new foods in the morning. Start small, with only 1 bite and if your child takes, chews, and swallows the bite, provide access to their typical breakfast items. This strategy is intended to reinforce the behavior of eating a new food, meaning that trying new foods will be more likely to happen in the future.
- Keep the demand small in the beginning. Though it is only one bite of a new food, your child will be more likely to try new foods in the future because the demand is not overwhelming.
- If your child refuses, don’t fight with them. Instead wait an hour until providing any kind of snack. Set a timer so that your child knows when it is snack time. Only conduct these taste trials when you have the time. If your child refuses and you end up giving him/her the foods they prefer to eat, right after they have refused, they will learn that all they need to do next time is refuse in order to get what they want. It’s important to change the pattern and stick with the rules set in place – eating one bite will get them out of the undesirable situation, and give them what they want; refusing the bite will not get them what they want.
- When success with one bite has been achieved, increase your rule to two bites of the same food the next time and gradually increase from there.
Starting with the tips above can help ease the new mealtime rules being put forth and has been proven by empirical research to work time and time again. However, when you’re a parent of a selective eater, it’s difficult to change the rules and be the therapist overnight. It’s challenging not only trying to change your child’s behavior, but also the rules that have been in place up until now. Seeking a professional who has behavioral feeding experience to help guide you in this process, support you along the way, and determine the ideal treatment for your child will make the first few steps of the process easier to grasp until the momentum during mealtimes is generated.
By Ben Sarcia, MA, BCBA, LBA, Director of Feeding Therapy Services at Verbal Beginnings.