More than Just the Food
- Learn How to Involve Your Special Needs Child in All Aspects of the Meal
- Consider the Elements of Your Dining Routine and How to Stick to Them
- Browse Suggestions for Involving Kids in Cooking and Cleaning Up Meals
- Find Out How Your Family Can Eat at Restaurants Easily and Enjoyably
- Get Ideas for Cups, Plates and Utensils That Make for Independence
These days, family togetherness time can be scarce with people running off to different activities and managing different schedules. But something worth making time for and certainly one of the greatest pleasures that family members can share in is the family meal.
Eating breakfast, lunch or dinner together engages all of the senses: from smelling and tasting good food, to seeing loved ones around you and hearing their pleasant conversation, and finally feeling the warmth of a relative or friend's hand on your skin as he or she reaches out to you. Dinnertime is a time to discuss the day that has just passed and plan ahead for tomorrow, just as breakfast offers an opportunity to get ready for a busy day. Shared mealtimes are a great way to indulge the senses and find security amongst people you love.
Your special needs child can share in family mealtimes and perhaps even meal preparation and cleanup activities too. With some small helpful changes, he can participate to his fullest potential, whether meals happen at home, at a friend or relative's house, or in a family-friendly restaurant. For some children, eating at the table may be as simple as using a modified fork, plate or cup. For others, greater modifications may be needed; and they are available. There is a way to accommodate everyone; and every member of the family can enjoy the experience of dining together.
Here are some things to consider when including your special needs child at family dinners:
- Dining area (kitchen, dining room, restaurant etc.)
- Good positioning (standard chairs, adapted seating)
- Ins and outs of eating and drinking (silverware, cups, plates, etc.)
Where does your family eat dinner?
If you usually gather around the kitchen table for meals at home, stick to that tradition as much as possible. "The important thing for any child is routine," explains Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant Diana Hohmann. "No matter where you are, whether at home, a friend's house or a restaurant, it's important to preserve the routine your child is used to. Do you start the meal with a song? Does your child have a special seat at the table next to a specific relative? Always begin the meal with your regular routine."
If you're just starting to bring the family together for meals, establish a routine with boundaries for before, during and after eating. One of the easiest ways to do this is to show children how much time remains before the meal begins or ends with an Audible Time Timer, a clock that shows time with simple sights and sounds. The ChoiceWorks™ Visual Support System is another option for preparing children for meals by allowing you to layout a visual "to do" list
with rewards for completing each action. For instance, make step one wash your
hands, step two find your seat, etc. The reward can be dessert.
Older children who can stand with or without assistance can help with meal preparation using the Kitchen Helper, a wooden platform that boosts kids to the level of the counter. The High Rise Step-Up is another way of encouraging children to help cook or even set the table. "Give them the opportunity to be involved," advises Hohmann. "Family dinner is about enabling and including your child. Allow him to help out with plastic or paper cups and plates that won't damage floors or bang toes if they're dropped. It's all about your child's level of ability and your family's level of comfort."
Hohmann explains that, once a routine is established, your special needs child can enjoy family mealtimes in other locations - such as the dining room for holiday celebrations, at a friend's house or in a restaurant.
Dining in a restaurant may be something you haven't considered doing with your entire family. But Hohmann advises that parents should treat themselves and their children to a meal out at a family-friendly restaurant as desired. "Don't convince yourself that you can't bring your kids," she says. "You can. Just scout out the restaurant before you go. If you have a child who is oversensitive to sounds or lights, you need to gauge if the restaurant is too loud or too bright beforehand."
When choosing a restaurant, look for wheelchair accessibility even if your child does not require the use of a wheelchair. This means it will be easier to enter and exit the building as well as use the restrooms for toileting, cleaning and changing needs. Pack a "going out" bag, complete with all of the items that help you maintain your routine, and even some quiet toys for your child to play with at the table while he waits for his food. Dine during off-peak hours if this will ensure that noise and traffic levels won't disturb your child. Ask the host for a booth or corner table so that your family can enjoy privacy during the meal.
One special needs parent decided to celebrate her daughter Sarah's birthday with dinner out at a fancy restaurant: "Sarah has Aicardi Syndrome," the parent explained. "That's a rare genetic syndrome that affects only girls. Sarah has an engaging personality, can understand some language, and can make sounds with her mouth; but she is not able to hold up her head, move herself, speak in words or see. Sarah was not expected to live past the age of 5, so it was with great joy that we recently celebrated her 21st birthday."
Sarah and family had a fantastic experience dining out together: "I called the restaurant ahead of time to make sure it was wheelchair accessible," the parent said. "I told them how special this occasion was for us and asked if they had soft or pureed foods they could serve. The restaurant welcomed us with open arms, seated us in a comfortable setting, and served Sarah a wonderful pureed soup, soft pasta and pudding for dessert. Sarah was delighted throughout the evening, trilling and cooing away to the happy sounds and tastes she was sensing. It was a magical evening for Sarah and for our family!"
Whatever your child's needs, keeping up the mealtime routine and staying aware of distractions will help you to include him or her in the social and sensory experience of dining with family and friends.
How does your child sit up to the table?
Positioning is another important thing to consider when including your special needs child at the family meal. He might be capable of sitting in a standard dining chair by himself, but there are ways to modify that chair with cushions and wedges for optimum benefit. Portable Wedge Air Cushions give your child a slight boost and keep his bottom on the chair during mealtime.
For more advanced support, try the Adjustable Lateral Chair Supports, in three sizes, to keep children from leaning out of their chairs. These supports Velcro® together for easy width adjustment and literally grow with your child as needed. The Back-2-Go Back Support and Headrest strengthen posture and trunk control and are height- and width-adjustable with removable supports. Each of these aids attaches to standard chairs and can be used for tabletop work or crafts in addition to eating at the table. The Skillbuilders Modular Seating System makes it possible to feed, transport and position children with special needs at a reasonable price.
Perhaps your child would benefit from having his own eating area next to the
table. For this independent yet side-by-side dining experience, use a Height Right Chair and accessories, available in sizes that accommodate up to 200 lbs. This seat provides safe minimal-to-moderate support in a comfortable adjustable chair with footrest, 3-point safety belt and optional cushions and tray. When used without the tray, the chair can be pulled right up to the family table.
Does your child need special eating and drinking equipment?
Eating with traditional dinnerware can be difficult and messy for children with
physical and developmental challenges. Safeguard against spills with Dycem® Non-Slip products, including Fun Shapes placemats and custom-sizing surface reels. This FDA approved "food grade," non-toxic, latex fee, non-slip vinyl matting provides a secure surface for plates, cups, eating utensils and other items. Of course spills can and will happen. Protect clothing with bibs in the right sizes, including disposable and machine-washable varieties.
For eaters who can easily swallow food, consider using adapted dinnerware such as: Weighted Utensils, designed for children with tremors; Gripables Comfortable Cutlery, for children with grasping difficulties; Super Grip Utensils, available in straight or angled form with non-slippery handles; or Utensil Holders, cuffed and clip-on holders, designed to adapt standard silverware for children with grasping difficulties.
Scooper Plates are great for children with limited muscle control or who have the use of only one hand. Rounded edges prevent overflows and can be used to push food onto cutlery. Freedom Dinnerware is unbreakable and can be attached to a removable suction pad base that won't budge on clean, flat surfaces even when bumped. Available in snack bowl, scoop plate and divided plate forms, Redware™ Tableware sets were designed for the visually impaired who can't see light-colored foods on their plates. They're available with scooper dish and
non-stick base, Inner Lip™ plate, drinking cup and easy-to-grip utensils.
Easy Grip Cups are shatterproof and designed to hold hot and cold beverages. Featuring textured, slip-resistant, secure grips, they're easy to lift, grip and hold. The Soft Nosey Cup is ideal for children who have limited neck range
of motion, allowing them to drink without extending the neck. The Double-Handled Mug makes drinking easier and safer for those with weak grasps and has a drinking
spout to prevent spills.
Even if your child has special considerations - such as reflux, reliance on a feeding tube, allergies or difficulty swallowing, Hohmann advises that all children can and should be part of their families' dining rituals. "Don't be embarrassed to bring your own food when you go to a friend's house for dinner - or even a restaurant with permission - to accommodate the dietary needs of your special needs child," she says. "Establish your routine and make dinnertime work for everybody involved. If your child uses a feeding tube before dinner, he or she can still receive the social and sensory benefits of family dinnertime."
After all, there's much more to a family meal than just food!