Family Meals for Children with Special Needs

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September is coming to an end, but it was Family Meals Month. Many are aware of the great benefits of family meals. Children that eat meals with their family have healthier body weights, eat more fruits and vegetables, perform better academically, and have a reduced incidence of participating in risky behaviors.

Ideas that are provided for successful family meals include serving food buffet style, so children can serve themselves, including children in food prep, and starting dinner off with a question to steer conversation away from food and to the family.

For some families who have children with special needs they may find family meals to be stressful for many reasons:

·       A child with extreme sensory processing issues may not be able to consume a wide variety of food, therefore, leading to a parent making a separate meal.

·       Children that are overstimulated easily may find the dinner table stressful and not want to be present at the table.

·       A parent may have to modify the texture of food for a child that has difficulty chewing and/or swallowing.

·       Families may have a child that is unable to eat by mouth and they receive tube feedings and the family may feel like eating in front of them is leaving them out.

All these reasons can make family meals challenging and the emphasis on family meals for the typical child may make these families feel less than or like they are not doing enough. Well, there are some ways to adapt family meals for the special needs child.

-If a child is extremely picky due to sensory processing issues, offer one of their preferred foods for family meals and offer it to the entire family. This will help the child feel a part of the meal because they are sharing a favorite food. For example, if the child will eat applesauce, place applesauce out as a side item at least 1 time per week.

-For children that are overstimulated due to noise a family may need to allow the child to wear noise cancelling headphones for the meal, so they are able to sit at the table. Since this will prevent the child from hearing conversation the family may want to keep a small dry erase memo board or another appropriate communication device at the table.

-When a child has difficulty chewing or swallowing the family may mash or blend the foods that they are already having for dinner rather than make a separate meal.

-Tube fed children can be included in family meals in multiple ways. There feed can be timed to happen when the family is eating and if they are allowed small tastes, these tastes can be given at that time as well. Another way the tube fed child could be included is the family may use some of the food they are having for dinner to blend and give in the feeding tube. For safety purposes it is recommended the child have had a gastrostomy tube for at least 12 weeks, be able to tolerate bolus feedings, and approval from their managing physician.

-Some children may be very sensitive to smells, therefore, serving meals at the family table could lead to discomfort. To help a child that is sensitive to smells recommend serving dinner away from the table (on a kitchen counter), where family member can make their plates and then gather at the table.

Everyone can be included in family meals. If you would like more information on including children with special needs in family meals, please click here.