Supporting Mealtime Environments
Each element of the environment contributes to the type of meal that is experienced and whether or not the meal is enjoyed by both the child and parent. The physical, sensory, cognitive, and emotional needs of individual children and parents will influence the impact of environmental elements (Evans Morris & Dunn Klein, 2000).
The physical environment includes the physical comfort and support received by the child and the parent (Evans Morris & Dunn Klein, 2000). The child’s feeding and sensorimotor function are strongly influenced by their seating and positioning.
The comfort of the adult who is feeding the child is also important to the success of the meal. If a caregiver’s body is poorly supported, they may become fatigued which may contribute to physical and emotional stress. Children can sense this stress and often misinterpret it as their fault (Evans Morris & Dunn Klein, 2000).
Other aspects of the physical environment include:
- utensils: dishes, cups, cutlery, placemats, table cloths
- furniture: arrangement of furniture in room, location of child’s seat and others at the table
- food: texture, consistency, temperature, colour, size, shape, odour
The ideal environment is considerate of the child’s sensory preferences and triggers (Lillas & Turnbull, 2009).
The sensory environment incorporates all sensory areas that are involved in mealtime. The child’s sensory preferences, along with the family’s sensory preferences, often determine where food is eaten. However, differences in sensory preferences and sensory triggers among family members can be problematic, particularly if one member is more sensitive that the rest of the family (Lillas & Turnbull, 2009); (Evans Morris & Dunn Klein, 2000).
Some children learn to eat only in the presence of distractions, e.g. when the television is on, or while playing with a favourite toy. Use of distractors has to be short-term with the intention of elimination because the child lays down the brain pathways for the distractor and not the pathways for eating, therefore they do not know how to eat when not distracted, and shift into reflexive eating mode (Toomy & Ross, 2011).
The sensory properties of the food also need to be taken into consideration for children with sensory processing difficulties, e.g. strong food odours, amount of food presented on the plate, colour of the food. Children with strong sensory preferences or triggers may require specific intervention techniques to facilitate mealtime routines.