Since the launch of Happy Eating Club in 2014, a variety of picky eating course pop-ups have emerged on-line. Some are being offered by licensed and credentialed health care professionals and some are being offered by popular, non-clinically experienced food bloggers selling meal plans. As new moms navigate through the marketing, it’s becoming a bit more confusing to determine which course to choose. Here are six top questions to ask when choosing a picky eating course. These questions will empower you to learn not only about the philosophy of the teacher, but also give you a solid understanding of their advanced education, clinical experience, licensing and credentialing.
1. As a Speech Language Pathologist, what is the difference between mainstream responses to eating challenges to those you counsel during pediatric feeding therapy?
I’ve seen so many different mainstream responses to eating challenges in blogs and mom chat rooms, and that includes everything from sneaking in foods, “magic” fixes, all the way to sending children to bed hungry if they don’t eat. While research is clear that none of these methods work for children in the long term, that last one, as a pediatric feeding therapist and as a mother, breaks my heart.
I work with such a giant range of children struggling with eating that I offer a completely different vantage point from my experience. I understand that when children use behavioral refusals it is absolutely an indication that something else is going on at a deeper level, so my response is to look for the underlying problems and to clear them out of the way. Refusals can have a sensory component, a behavioral component, an environmental component OR a combination of all three. I talk about each of these areas in my program to empower families to make a real change!
When children qualify to see me one-on-one for feeding therapy it means that they have an exceptional need. Many times these children are struggling with mealtimes because of an additional diagnosis, musculature weakness or an extreme sensory sensitivity. For these children, their feeding therapy plans are always unique to their individual needs, however, all parents that see me one- on-one gain the bonus of a greater understanding of the complexity of pediatric feeding.
One important component that is always the same is the education provided for parents about feeding milestones, the complicated science of eating, common sabotages to mealtimes and strategies for guiding their child successfully through all of it. Happy Eating Club members get this education too.
2. A lot of parents struggle with children that refuse to eat healthy foods, in your experience, what is a common reason why this occurs?
There can be many causes behind feeding refusals and that makes figuring out what’s happening so cumbersome for parents. Our society places a great amount of attention and focus on the physical or gross motor milestones, like when a child rolls over, crawls or begins to walk, but unfortunately we give much less attention to natural feeding milestones that occur for children as well.
An important feeding milestone that all children experience is called Neophobia, meaning a fear of new foods. Children meet this milestone between the ages of 18 months to 3 years. Some children sail through this milestone easily, but for other children this milestone can be the beginning of long term refusals occurring at the table and plenty of frustration for their parents.
During this stage, children previously judged as “good eaters” begin to reject new food and may even refuse familiar foods they once enjoyed. Some evidence suggests that this is a combination of evolutionary protection paired with a psychological or behavioral component. In any case, it’s real and normal for your child to be experiencing this to some degree.
Neophobia is a developmental stage and really should not last a lifetime, but the way that parents react to these refusals will have either a positive or negative effect on their child’s relationship with food and how they move forward.
3. How does understanding feeding milestones affect a child’s eating habits?
Knowledge of feeding milestones and how to proactively meet them in a positive way is a complete game changer for families. When informed parents expect feeding milestones, like Neophobia, they are prepared when their child begins refusing foods. Since many parents believe that these natural developmental refusals are strictly behavioral, they handle these refusals with frustration and punishment. This creates negative experiences at the table and changes the parent-child relationship into one that is working against each other instead of one that’s working together.
Parents can avoid all of this by being prepared, expecting this behavior and understanding that their child has reached an important normal stage. Instead of offering punishment, they can instead offer their child more patience, temporarily lower their volume expectations of refused foods, involve their child in food activities across settings and continue to provide multiple exposures to a healthy variety of foods with a slower, more gradual approach.
4. We believe in positive parenting and don’t label our kids as picky eaters because such negative labeling can be more self-fulfilling than helpful. What are your thoughts on our philosophy?
I love your philosophy on labeling, because I couldn’t agree with you more. When a child has been labeled as a “picky” eater, you’ve defined their behavior and though not intentional, you’ve given them a verbal reason or excuse to refuse new or healthy foods moving forward. As a licensed Speech Language Pathologist, I can say without question that language is powerful. In fact, once parents gain a deeper understanding of how to use language to market food to their children, they can actually begin to transform refusals into new positive food trials or exposures.
Let me explain what I mean. When I have conversations with parents about healthy foods I often hear, “my daughter would never eat that” or “he’s so picky that I stopped trying new foods.” Where do parents go from there? They’ve closed the door on themselves.
For this reason, it is so rewarding to coach parents on changing the language they use about food with their kids. When parents tell me, “it’s not her favorite,” I immediately teach them to add “yet” to the end of that sentence. “It’s not her favorite, yet.”
One of the greatest things that I guide parents to teach their children is that the taste of food changes over time. This happens as we acquire a taste through multiple exposures, but it also happens for children as their taste buds continue to change and evolve as they grow. Instead of dreading offering multiple exposures, I teach parents to use them as a fun way of discovering if their child has gotten “big enough” to enjoy them. When a child tries a food and tells us that they “don’t like it,” our response should always be, “you don’t like it yet and that’s ok for now, but you are going to love it when you get bigger.”
They may not exactly love a food the first or second time, but maybe, just maybe the next time, they just might be “big enough.” Using this strategy dials into a child’s natural desire to be a “big” kid and keeps the door open to try foods again.
5. In Happy Eating Club, you talk about a sensory, behavioral approach to feeding. Can you give some real life context in what that might mean?
Absolutely. Many people believe that eating is easy and it’s really not. Eating is actually the most complex, physical task that human beings engage in and is the only human task which requires each of our organ systems and every muscle in our body to work in simultaneous coordination with all 8 of our sensory systems. As if that wasn’t already enough, additionally, external environmental sources influence how your child grows into eating.
Let’s talk a little deeper about just one of the eight senses – tactile or touch. Children need to explore their foods on the outside of their bodies to gain the tactile feedback needed to feel comfortable enough to place food into their mouths. They need permission to touch food, push it around a little, pick it up with their hands, feel the weight of it and the texture of it.
Touch is giving the body a message about what to expect when food is on it’s way to the mouth. Think about how much information we can gather about a food beforehand: Is the food…cold, crispy, crunchy, damp, dry, firm, fuzzy, gritty, hard, hot, icy, warm, moist, pulpy, rough, slimy, smooth, soft, steamy, sticky, tender, textured, thick, thin, tough, warm, waxy, wet, etc. This tactile information sends messages to our brains and helps prepare our bodies for the texture and temperature that we are about to experience.
Food experiences can feel different for children with every meal. If the first time you offered a food choice was right after it was steamed, stir fried or pureed versus the next time when you’ve prepared it differently (say chicken in a new sauce or paired with different vegetables) — from your child’s developmental perspective, that food is new again. Your children are learning NEW tastes all the time and this includes every time you offer a new combination of foods. Does this mean you can’t mix up your meal planning? Absolutely not! It just means that members of the Happy Eating Club are going to have a greater amount of tools and strategies to guide their child through each new combination, each change, each mealtime, each day.
6. What’s one tip you can give to parents to improve one of their children’s eating habits?
If I could reach every parent out there, I would want them to know that just like it takes time and support for a child to learn to ride a bike or learn read, children also need time and support to grow into loving healthy food. Building a happy, healthy eater is a continuous process. So much research supports that staying positive and avoiding struggles at the table in the early years is fundamental for building a child that makes good food choices for their entire lifetime.
Here is a quick tip that you can try tonight at dinner! If you notice your child has slowed down or isn’t focused on eating, instead of telling them to “eat,” try offering them a controlled choice. (i.e. Are you going to choose broccoli or chicken next? I can’t wait to see!”) When parents offer a controlled choice, it’s a win-win for everyone. Their child gets to feel empowered by making independent decisions about eating and the parents can relax knowing that since the controlled choice offered two healthy options, no matter what choice is made their child’s body is getting the nourishment it needs.
Lastly, I want parents to know that I recognize that since my launch of Happy Eating Club there are now several more options to consider at all different price points. I’m proud that Happy Eating Club offers families the support of a licensed and nationally certified pediatric feeding expert. Feeding therapy is not about the food or the menu or one mom’s journey. It’s about your child’s body and mind’s response to the act of eating.
It’s about picking an expert that will know what to do for each unique child. There are well-educated, licensed and credentialed health care professionals that work exclusively in pediatric feeding. Parents that are really struggling with mealtimes should always seek out a feeding program ran by a licensed and credentialed expert in the field. Parents of children who are not meeting milestones should reach out to their pediatrician to ask for a referral to see a Speech Language Pathologist for a pediatric feeding evaluation that will help them get local expert support.
If you are looking for a program that offers the support of a licensed and highly credentialed pediatric feeding specialist with over 10 years of experience helping thousands of children in the health care setting, consider joining Happy Eating Club.
Join my global community for our next round of information sharing, expert advice, researched-based tools and tips and the support of a fully licensed and credentialed pediatric feeding therapist! You have the power to build a community of true experts in the field of feeding and swallow who understand clinically-based pediatric feeding! Choose wisely! Registration for May starts now! Click here to claim your spot in Happy Eating Club – May 5th!