Using Snack Time To “Work”

Cindy Hooks Morrison, M.S., CCC-SLP, CLC


How fun are these dishes?!

I absolutely love them!  Everything about them says FUN and encourages positive interactions with food.  The best part is, these plates are super easy to make. These are simply re-created with dollar store plates that can be decorated with sharpies and baked in the oven at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.  A must do, even for this busy Mama that loves to craft but is always searching for more hours in the day.

As a mother of two boys, these plates stood out as fun but they honestly appealed more to the pediatric feeding therapist side of me.  The moment I saw them I knew the benefit that they could have for some children with mild behavioral feeding disorders at work and thought: “What a fantastic feeding tool!””

Meal time in our house is NEVER play time.  While we do enjoy talking and taking turns building stories during our meals, we don’t play.  We have fun communicating with each other, but my son knows that “eating to grow healthy and strong is the work that my son does for our family.”  With that way of thinking in mind, here is how I would use these adorable plates as a fun “feeding tool.”

First, I would absolutely never, ever, ever offer these plates with a food item that my son loved.  I would only use these plates to encourage interactions with new foods or food choices that are less desirable to him.  Children must conquer several stages of interaction with foods in order to become comfortable enough to eat them.  Seeing new foods and exploring them by first looking at them, smelling them and touching them are true steps that need to continue to happen for children beyond the introduction to baby foods.

Just think about how we interact with foods as adults when visiting a farmers market.  We are drawn to items to purchase when we notice the colors of foods, we pick them up (touch) and look them over and even smell some to check for ripeness.  These are natural steps for us because they are engrained in us from both the positive and negative food experiences that we have had across the span of time.  Our children need to be allowed this time to explore foods without pressure and often need multiple presentations of the same items before they get comfortable to even bring them close to their mouths.  If you find that they are not ready to start chomping, praise them for the steps that they ARE taking and be specific (i.e. “I love the way you are holding, touching, kissing, smelling, licking or tasting that eggplant.”)

Snack time is a GREAT time to offer a new food or a less desired food choice. I say this, because as you try to add to your child’s food repertoire and encourage experimentation with new foods it is normal to experience some resistance from time to time.  The last place you want to experience this resistance is during dinner time.  That makes for an unpleasant meal for everyone and only sets up your next formal meal for failure. So introducing new foods in small amounts during snack time is great method to adopt for your family.  Once you’ve done this several times, it will just be a natural step for that food to show up during your main meal times (breakfast, lunch and dinner) because it will no longer be a “new” food.

Make sense?

So now let’s get back to those plates.  Once your little one has chosen which truck they want to load up, go ahead and lay out that plate. Give your child a bowl with a few pieces of new or less desirable items that they can use to load up that cool truck.  Allow them the freedom to choose which pieces they want to pick up and load onto the plate.  Remember that it does not matter to you which item they choose, it only matters that they are interacting with the new food — so offer positive praise for touching and loading those items onto the plate.

Encourage exploration to the level that your child is comfortable with and then provide specific, positive praise for what they HAVE done with that food. (i.e. “Awesome, touching Ben.  That food is really cold and wet and you are doing a great job exploring it.”  It’s important to praise them for what they ARE doing rather than what you want them to do which is most certainly to just EAT IT.  But try hard to focus on their level and keep in mind this is snack time work and not their main meal.

Encourage looking, touching, rolling, turning, squeezing, squishing…the adjectives are endless!  Talk about the attributes of the food and teach language at the same time.

Is the food…cold, cool, crispy, crunchy, damp, dry, firm, soft, fishy, fleshy, fuzzy, gritty, hard, hot, icy, leathery, warm, moist, oily, prickly, pulpy, rough, rubbery, slimy, slippery, smooth, soft, spongy, steamy, sticky, sweet, sour, tender, textured, thick, thin, tough, velvety, warm, waxy, wet, etc…

What color is this food?

Where do you find this food?

How does this food grow?

What does this food smell like?

What shape is this food?

You will know when your child has reached his or her limit with exploring the new food. They will begin to wiggle, lose interest, protest and look to move on to something else. The KEY to having your child progress on to accepting and eventually eating the new foods is how you handle the end of the introduction.  If the introduction ends with a struggle to “eat it”,  you will only make the sight of that food cause stress and immediate resistance the next time it’s introduced.  Instead, go ahead and have fun waving or saying “good bye” to that food.  Remove the new food from the plate and give a few pieces of a food that your child likes to load up on and finish off the snack on a positive note.

As excited as we get to introduce and provide healthy foods for our babies — don’t overload or over introduce!  Remember that even as adults, we are still trying new foods.  Our children have a lifetime to try new foods.  Go slow!  Keep the number of pieces that you present to 5 to 6 at a time and only use snack time to introduce new foods once or twice per week.  You want to keep snack time light, fun and stress-free.  It should not last any longer than 10-15 minutes!

Lastly, if you have a child that is absolutely resistant from the start, it’s ok to let them know that they will “not have to taste it this time,” because “we are just exploring today.”  And then keep on encouraging and praising them for the level of interaction that they ARE doing.  If you let them progress more naturally and independently (even though it is very hard to do sometimes), before you know it your specific, positive praise will be transforming from “Good touching” to “Good crunching!”

Happy Snacking & Plate Crafting too!

Chew Chew Mama Tip:  It doesn’t matter what photo your child is loading food onto, it is only the interaction that matters.  So draw trucks, flower petals or even princess gowns that can be “decorated” with food.