Meal and Feeding Tips for Children with Special Needs

GUEST POST for Glory Days Co. written by Sharon Sabol


There's something especially emotional tied with eating and your child. You're providing an essential need for them, one of their basic needs for survival. And when they've rejected what feels like the 800th attempt to provide edible content for their growing bodies, it can be more than disheartening.


It can feel hopeless.


This is when my family turned to a feeding therapist, some reputable books, and some great Instagram accounts for help. If you’re searching for ways to overcome meal and feeding stress for your child with special needs, the following tips that worked for our family may help.

Think of mealtime as family time or social time.

Eating in many cultures is an important time to gather around the table and connect with one another. It's enjoyable because of this and because of the food we get to eat. Focusing on this helps draw our attention towards family, instead of every bite our child is eating, which takes the press off.

Enable independence and participation whenever possible.

Eating is one of those things that we cannot force our child to do. We must exhibit a lot of patience and release control. The more emotion we give to eating, the more we make it an ordeal, the more resistant your child will likely be to it.


There are many small ways you can enable independence and participation when it comes to food. Put all the servings of food that everyone will eat on the table, and allow your child to pick what they will eat. Let your child pour her own milk out of a small cup into her cereal. Ask your child to set his own place at the table.


Our young children are wired to learn how to do things for themselves. It takes our patience and time to help them learn to do it themselves. When they have had control in mealtime, it can make a world of a difference.

Take one skill at a time.

Hooray! Your kiddo is finally eating yogurt! But, oh no. It's with their hands. Seriously?


It's okay. Take a deep breath, and remember that you’re still making progress. Keep your eye on the skill you're working on. You might even use meal planning or tracking sheets to track your child’s progress.


Understand your child’s preferences.

For example, children with Down syndrome all have some degree of hypotonia, which affects mouth muscles too. It can be harder to bite down a whole baby carrot, or stickier foods like fruit snacks may be more difficult to chew. You might pick foods with different textures, or change its form to make eating easier.


Another example is how your child sits while they eat. For many kids, the body in space is important. Flat footing can steady their body while they eat, allowing them to focus on their food rather than engaging their core strength to stay upright.


Maybe your child will benefit from visuals to help them through mealtimes. Use a “first, then” board: print a picture of a meal on the "first” side of a poster board or whiteboard. Place a picture of an activity your child enjoys on the "then" side. A “first, then” board reminds them of the next activity to come.


Address any feeding issues that you can to alleviate mealtime stress for the both of you.

Allow all the messes.


Learning means there's going to be a mess. Keep cloths nearby to teach your child to wipe up spills. Keep a spill mat or clear shower curtain under a highchair. Use a bigger toddler sized bib or a full sleeved bib.


Remember: independence comes before nutrition. Over time, nutrition will fall into place. Look at what your child eats over a week, not over every meal, to remind yourself of the bigger picture.

Don't make a favorite food contingent upon eating other food first.

Add a small amount of their favorite food onto the dinner plate. Not only does this teach them appropriate portions, but it definitely can make dinner a happier time. You may be surprised to see that your child is willing to try some off the other things on her plate.

Separate food with portioned plates

Sometimes the thought of all the food on a plate at once can be overwhelming for kids with special needs. Portioned plates like these can help. Keep portions small at first and in their individual, separated spots. This can be calming for some kiddos who need order. You might even have a "garbage" container for food they wish to reject. And don’t forget, even adults don't like every piece of food on their plate.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

There's an actual hierarchy to trying a food in the mouth for the first time. First, it's tolerating. Then, it’s interacting. Then smelling, touching, and finally tasting. It can take ten exposures or more before a child will try a new food. Don't give up. Keep showing up. A Glory Days Planner can help you keep those new food attempts on track.

Let go.

Let your child eat their meal in peace. Let them eat the food in the order they wish, and as much or as little as they wish. See what happens when you change your opinions to comments if you feel the need to mention something.

Consider Oral Motor Feeding / Speech Therapy.

You are an amazing parent, and no one doubts that. Sometimes you need someone with expertise to help and give guidance. We can't all be great at everything, and we all have the capability to learn something new.


Take care, and happy eating!

Sharon (& Aiden)




Recommended Resources:


Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater

by Nimali Fernando, MD, MPH and Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP


Getting to Yum - The 7 secrets of raising eager eaters

by Karen Le Billon


Raising a Sensory Smart Child

by Lindsey Biel, M.A., OTR/L and Nancy Peske

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