An SOS for picky eaters

HOUGHTON – It’s a problem many parents face: how to feed a picky eater.

Some local parents got help on that topic Thursday night at an event as part of the Portage Health Rehab Lecture Series.

Portage Rehab staffers Monica Aho, a physical therapist and pediatric certified specialist, and Elizabeth Martin, a speech language pathologist, spoke Thursday at Portage’s University Center clinic in Houghton.

Aho and Martin use the SOS (sequential, oral, sensory) approach. Taking as its centerpiece the idea that “the child is always right,” it looks to ways to motivate the child with the food itself.

“It’s a very positive approach,” Aho said.

In some cases, children might not want to eat because of pain or immature swallowing skills, such as foods frequently leaking out of the sides of the child’s mouth or biting cups and utensils instead of using lips.

To remedy those, parents are advised to model good swallowing form, or give children play activities such as whistles, bubbles or chewing toys. Parents should also look for foods the children are successful with, then build up from there.

Sometimes there can be a “sensory processing problem,” in which children are turned off by some aspect of the food. While adults may have life experience to view spaghetti as pleasurable, the sight and texture may remind children of “a plate of worms.”

To address this, Aho and Martin suggest an incremental approach, based on getting the child to first tolerate the food, then interact, smell, touch, taste and finally eat and consume.

Martin showed videos of some of the ways she acclimates children to unfamiliar foods. For one child who had an aversion to Froot Loops, the trick was sticking it above his lip, from where he had to get off into his mouth with his tongue. He was then asked if he could chew it for 30 seconds.

“Don’t get discouraged if you go home and try this and get nothing,” Martin said. “Try it for two weeks. Try it for a month.”

Some children may have learned behavioral feeding problems.

While children might make faces when eating a food, it takes them about 10 times eating it to form a solid opinion. At home, people can help their child become enthusiastic through family-style meals, in which the food is placed in clear containers and then shipped around the table.

That way, the children can absorb the expectation of people taking the food, and also get cues on how much to take.

The table should also include a “learning plate,” in the middle where kids can interact with food, as well as a “spitting bowl,” where children can spit out food if they don’t want to swallow it.

Routines and set meal times are important. The look of the table should also also be neutral, so that the food is the most immediately interesting thing there.

Parents should also model good feelings about the food, Aho said. Instead of scolding the child, “Why won’t you eat carrots?”, they should make positive statements like “You can eat carrots.”

Jody Hammerstrom of Liminga came for tips on getting her 7-year-old son to try new foods. She said she’d definitely be trying some of the things she’d learned.

“I think the learning plate and the spitting bowl, and the keeping the mealtime structured and consistent,” she said.