How to Tackle Picky Eaters

“No Way!”

Ever heard your child make any of these comments when you have handed them a plate of food with something they disliked on it? How about taking a non-preferred food item when offered and threw it on the floor/wall/ceiling? Does your child have a select number of foods that he/she will eat? Would you classify them as a “picky eater”? Then we have great news! We can help!In the world of Applied Behavior Analysis, we tackle picky eaters with something called a Food Program. Food Programs are a way to gradually introduce a new food to a child by breaking it down into steps. Each food program is unique to the child it is written for. The steps are dependent on the type of food being introduced, the motor capabilities of the child, the language level of the child, as well as the desires of the parents.

Components of a Food Program:

There are many components to a Food Program. One of the most important, is the reinforcer. When selecting a reinforcer for a food program it should be quickly consumable, easily distributed, and highly liked. This food item should be withheld from the child during all other snacks and meal times and only accessed during trials of the food program…..doing this will make that food item more valuable and help with the success of the food program. However, the reinforcer does not always have to be something edible. It could be a video clip of a favorite show, time on the iPad, or a sticker if the child loves stickers.Another important component to the Food Program is selecting the food. In most cases the parents of the child select the food that will be used. The food chosen could be to expand the number of different foods eaten, increase calorie intake, increase nutritional value in foods, or to simply expand the child’s pallet to include other types of chicken that isn’t a nugget.

Deciding the first step of the Food Program is equally important. The first step could be tolerating the non-preferred food item on the plate, instead of falling to the floor, kicking, and screaming. It could also be touching the non-preferred food item without crying. Or it could be teaching the child to say, “no thank you” when offered something they do not like/want instead of chucking it across the room. The first step is dependent on the child’s reaction to non-preferred items being presented.

The end. Most Food Programs are complete once the last step has been mastered and the child is able to eat the once non-preferred food item(s) in multiple settings (center and at home). When this occurs the Food Program can be started again and the steps adjusted to target a new food item. Terminating a program completely, often occurs once the child has learned to try new foods without engaging in problem behaviors or as requested by parents. Food Programs can also be put on hold at any time to target other skills that have been determined to be more pressing for the child.

Food Program Example:

Sally eats a very small variety of foods. Her list of preferred food items includes and is limited to: macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, ice cream, and popcorn which is her absolute favorite. When she is presented with a non-preferred food item (such as a strawberry) Sally will attempt to throw the food item, knock it on the floor, and engage in screaming or crying. Her parents are concerned with the lack of fruits and veggies she consumes and have requested a Food Program be written and implemented for eating strawberries.

Sally’s BCBA has written the following program to help expand the number of foods she eats.

Reinforcer for the Food Program: Popcorn. Sally will only be allowed to have popcorn for successfully completing a trial in the Food Program. Sally should not have access to popcorn at any other time. A successful trial is defined as eating the specified amount of food without attempting to swat it away, throw it, spit it out, scream, cry, or kick.

After 3 successful days at a step, Sally will move on to the next step.

*Steps may need to be added or skipped depending on Sally’s success with each step.

GOAL: Sally will consume one serving of strawberries (1 cup)

Step 1: Touch 1 piece of strawberry (2 trials/day)
Step 2: Pick up 1 piece of strawberry (2 trials/day)
Step 3: Touch 1 piece of strawberry to lips (2 trials/day)
Step 4: Touch 1 piece of strawberry to teeth (2 trials/day)
Step 5: Bite down on 1 piece of strawberry (2 trials/day)
Step 6: Eats one bite of strawberry (2 trials/day)
Step 7: Eats 2 bites (2 trials/day)
Step 8: Eats 3 bites (2 trials/day)
Step 9: Eats 4 bites (2 trials/day)
Step 10: Eats ¼ cup (1 trial/day)
Step 11: Eats ½ cup (1 trial/day)
Step 12: Eats ¾ cup (1 trial/day)
Step 13: Eats 1 cup (1 trial/day)

Katie Steinkamp, M.S., BCBA, Bridges Autism Therapies
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