When families begin the process of weaning from feeding tubes at home, a paralysis can take place, where you feel a lot of pressure to create magical mealtimes that will hypnotize your children into eating spoonful after spoonful. But when that paralysis strikes, we have good news: creating a wean-friendly meal does not require a magic touch. It only requires you to keep the following in mind:
Remember to stage your meal.
Mealtime staging is an intentional method of food presentation that considers nutrition, efficiency, and skill development in order to optimize each meal to meet the needs of your child in that moment. So, as we wean, we pay attention to a child’s eating age (which is calculated based on the amount of time the child has been oral), while remembering that oral motor skills develop over time. Kids learn to eat by eating!
When presenting a meal for your weaning child, it’s important to present foods with the most nutrition at the easiest skill-level first. For some kids, that means that we start every meal with yogurt, pudding, mashed potatoes, hummus, or guacamole – food that offers the most calories while requiring the least amount of skill. The second part of the meal is when we’d offer the next level of nutrition at the next level of skill difficulty. This is where you might bring out soft-chopped foods – all good calories, but requiring the child to use slightly more advanced skills. Then, the third part of the meal would include strips of soft items that not only require chewing, but biting as well. These stages can be offered separately (one, and then the other), or can overlap (putting soft food on the tray while feeding purees).
Keep realistic portion sizes in mind.
When serving your child a meal or snack, it is important not to offer too much food or too many choices because this can be visually overwhelming. An easy rule of thumb when determining how much food to serve is to look at the size of your child’s hands. The amount of protein should be able to fit into one palm, and the amount of whole grain should be able to fit into their other palm. The amount of fruit should be the size of the fingers on one hand and this same rule applies for veggies on the other. So, for toddlers, this can be just a couple of teaspoons or tablespoons of food from each food group. And remember that we start a wean we are expecting zero oral intake, and as appetite awakens, our expectations evolve. These portions are a goal to wean towards.
Don’t succumb to bribing.
Unlike peeing in the toilet for an M&M or unloading the dishwasher for an allowance, eating isn’t a behavior that should be extrinsically motivated. Children are not “good” for eating, and “naughty” for not – and this is especially true for those who have been tube fed for all or most of their lives. For this population, “not eating” is a strangely appropriate response to being tube fed. Their caloric and nutritional needs are met. Their bellies are full. And not eating is, weirdly, the response we want to see when those boxes are checked. Not eating on top of full tube feeds means that your child is listening to the “full” cues that his body is sending, and is responding appropriately by not eating more.
When we forget how appropriate food refusal is at this stage, it can be tempting to introduce extrinsic motivators in order to “get” our children to eat. Sometimes, we can be tempted to resort to sticker charts or added screen time in an attempt to provide the motivation. This is something to avoid, because when we bribe our kids to “take one more bite” or to “just try it,” we can convey the notion that it’s okay to ignore the cues that their bodies are sending – and that kind of thing can hinder our long-term goals in weaning from the tube.
In the long-term, we want children to listen to their bodies. When they’re hungry, we want them to reach for foods that provide the vitamins and calories that they need to thrive! When they’re full, we want them to put the cookie down, satisfied with the foods they ate and happy to move on to the next part of their day. We want their relationships with food to be intrinsically motivated – cultivated by the foods that bring nourishment and joy, fueled by a healthy appetite.
So, are you in that place of desperation where you’re tempted to get onto Pinterest and create the most elaborate sticker chart you can find? Our advice is to walk away from the computer, and simply offer opportunities to engage with eating experiences that are joy-filled and pressure-free. Because that, in and of itself, is magical!
Growing Independent Eaters provides expert and effective guidance for families who are ready to wean their children from feeding tubes to joyful family mealtimes. They empower parents to trust themselves and their children around food; provide personalized, detailed plans for creating positive mealtimes and introducing appetite; and offer a team of licensed support professionals to coach you through the journey. Growing Independent Eaters’ successful consultations provide an affordable, personalized, and caring path from the feeding tube to your family table.