Including Your “Picky Eaters” in Social Activities around Food

Including Your “Picky Eaters” in Social Activities around Food

Let’s be honest, a lot of social activities – both for children AND adults – involve food.  Birthday parties?  Pizza and cake.  Sleepovers?  Dinner (and a pancake breakfast the next morning!).  Playdates after school?  Snack time.  For picky eaters, who experience anxiety around new or unfamiliar foods, these fun, innocuous events may be perceived as threatening and unappealing, and thus avoided.  This avoidance is a problem for any child who might miss out on important childhood moments, but is especially harmful for selective eaters who dually present with social language challenges.  As speech language pathologists, we frequently treat children with complex profiles including language, social, sensory, and feeding difficulties.  How can we ensure that we are fostering our children’s social-language development (i.e., building friendships, participating in play and conversation with peers, and problem-solving social conflicts) across a variety of typical social interactions, while also being sensitive and accommodating to their feeding challenges?

To support our clients using a “whole child” approach, we are thrilled to have launched our City PALS Pragmatic Language Support Groups, which target social language and peer interaction skills through a variety of office- and community-based activities.  Our field trips frequently include food sites (i.e., pizza parlor, restaurants, 16 Handles, and baking cookies), to best reflect the real-life scenarios our children face outside of therapy and school.  How do we foster social skills (e.g., improving turn-taking, increasing flexibility, negotiating and compromising with friends, and engaging in cooperative play) while simultaneously supporting exposure to new foods and eating situations?  Here are some suggestions below!

At 16 Handles, children took turns preparing frozen yogurt sundaes for each other by pretending to be the “waiter” for their partner.  They had to check in with their partners to ask them what flavor frozen yogurt and what types of toppings they wanted, then prepare and serve it to them.  Why did this work so well for our kids, even those with aversions to certain food groups or textures (e.g., wet, “messy” whipped cream or the entire fruit bar!)?  It gave them an opportunity to interact with more challenging foods (by labeling them, scooping them, pouring them, and watching a friend eat them) without the pressure of needing to eat them themselves.  It also served as a fun, engaging, interactive experience with a peer, strengthening our kids’ abilities to reference their peers, listen and recall information, and take turns cooperatively.  Add in some imaginary play props – their very own picture menus and a “waitress notepad” to circle the frozen yogurt flavors and toppings – and you’ve got some very happy and enthusiastic kids!

At the pizza parlor, we were lucky enough to not just order and eat pizza, but to make it ourselves!  A real treat for some of our kids, a real challenge for others.  Imagine all of the sensory information a child must receive and process to make pizza – the temperature and texture of the dough and sauce, the strong smells of different food items as the pizza cooks, and of course the flavors and textures of the food themselves while eating.  How did we make this a positive, safe, and socially-engaging experience for the group?  First, we made the focus of the activity on creating a pizza pie together, as a group.  Each child could contribute to the pizza in the way that he best could, whether that was simply retrieving the materials and passing them out to the group, touching one finger to the dough rather than rolling or flattening it, or opening and closing the oven door (with adult supervision of course!).  Everyone can be involved in the process, regardless of their tactile, taste, or overall sensory sensitivities.  With our kids’ personalized chef hats, complete with their names on the front, all of the children were able to participate in the group experience successfully, leaving the group with greater social confidence and less anxiety about the next cooking or food activity.


Remember that we can explore and gain exposure to food and eating experiences using all of our senses and faculties!  We can start with simply viewing or talking about a food, such as by listing the ingredients or discussing how we would make pizza step-by-step, and then slowly and safely move across a hierarchy to eating.  This can include: handling closed containers (e.g., passing a closed tomato sauce jar to a friend), smelling, serving with utensils (e.g., scooping strawberries onto the frozen yogurt with a spoon), touching with just a finger, touching with our lips, licking, and biting.  When food exposure is embedded in socially-rich activities that focus on team work and peer relationships, we are best able to build our clients’ confidence across all developmental domains, including social language, sensory integration, and feeding.  If we, as therapists or parents, are open to a range of ways to participate, there will never, ever be a reason that a picky eater should feel excluded from a social experience involving food!  If they are working with the group, having fun participating at their level, and developing and deepening friendships, then to us, it is a SUCCESS!


For more information about City PALS, our Pragmatic Language Support groups, please feel free to contact Robin and Lauren!


Robin Goldberg, MA, CCC-SLP, TSSLD                                                           Lauren Cohen, MS, CCC-SLP, TSSLD
Speech Language Pathologist                                                                                            Speech Language Pathologist



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