This post is a sequel to last week’s post on Feeding Disorders. Click the highlighted link to check it out.

Feeding kids is hard! Your child doesn’t have to have a diagnosis for that to be true. As children grow, their nutrition needs, sensory needs, and need for independence all shift and change continuously. No gathering of moms would be complete without someone sharing a feeding struggle.

My baby used to love pureed carrots, so I spent a whole afternoon steaming, pureeing and freezing them in little meal-sized containers… and now he hates carrots!

I bought a Costco-sized box of those granola bars she likes, and now they’re just sitting there!

She turned into a picky eater overnight! Right when my mother-in-law came to visit for two weeks. It was so embarrassing!

He suddenly won’t eat anything unless it’s drowning in ranch!

This Instagram account is a great resource that always makes me smile.

Steps to Eating

Whether you have a picky eater, a problem feeder, or someone with a Feeding Disorder in your home, understanding the steps involved in eating is incredibly helpful. My autistic son struggles to eat and has a sensory-based Feeding Disorder. When his feeding therapist shared this information with me, it changed the way I approach mealtimes in our home.

Dr. Kay Toomey, creator of the SOS (Sequential-Oral-Sensory) Approach to feeding children with Pediatric Feeding Disorders, has identified 6 Steps that everyone goes through every time they eat something. Many of us progress through these steps without realizing it. However, if someone is struggling to eat, helping them achieve just one more step towards eating is progress worth celebrating!

  • Step 1: Look
    Just being in the same room or at the same table as a disliked food.
  • Step 2: Interact With
    Stir/help prepare a food. Carry it to the table. Be willing to be near the food without actually eating it.
  • Step 3: Smell
    This has several steps of its own, including smelling it in the room, smelling it at the table, smelling it on your plate, and then finally leaning in to take a good sniff.
  • Step 4: Touch
    Being able to touch something you find disgusting is a big deal! There are also braver and braver degrees of touching, from poking with the tip of your finger, to holding in the palm of your hand, to letting it touch your face.
  • Step 5: Taste
    Some sub-steps could be putting the food to your lips, taking it away, and then licking your lips; licking a spoon or fork that had the food on it, but is now empty; touching with the tip of the tongue; licking; taking a bite and immediately spitting it out.
  • Step 6: Eat
    Able to tolerate the food in your mouth long enough to taste it, chew it, and swallow it.

Learning these steps took a lot of pressure off. Now, instead of making a giant, impossible goal of getting him to eat one bite of something new at mealtime, I focus on helping him take another baby step towards trying something new, and celebrate each and every step.

Some Ways to Apply the Steps at Mealtimes

I’m still rather new on this journey, but here are some ways I have been taught, or have found, that help my son through the steps.

  • “You don’t have to eat it”
    Raise your hand if you are guilty of trying to sneakily slip a bite of disliked food, like mashed peas, into your toddler’s mouth. Yep, me too. We really haven’t been taught another way. They need to eat nutritious food, and we’re responsible for giving them that nutritious food, so we fork it it! Unfortunately, a lot of toddlers (fairly) develop a mistrust of food because of this tactic, and it can actually make picky eating worse.

    If you have a picky eater who panics every time they see something they don’t like, or even just something new, the best thing you can say to them is, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to eat it.” It will take time for them to truly believe you and become relaxed and comfortable around food, but it’s worth it. The panic, tears, yelling, and throwing food all stopped after my son was able to trust me around food again. Once he knew that I meant it–he didn’t have to eat it–he could relax and enjoy meals instead of worrying if I would put bites into his mouth or force him to sit until he had tried something.

    There are five steps to eating that a child can go through with food without ever swallowing a bite. Helping them feel safe at the table will make them much more willing to try these steps instead. If you can gradually help your child stay calm at the table when there is a disliked food on it, you’ve already completed Step 1: Look. They can see food and tolerate it in their presence, good job!

  • “Will you help me?”
    Once a child is comfortable with Step 1, Step 2 isn’t that hard at all. Step 2 is interacting with food (without actually touching it). If your child is comfortable with a bowl of disliked food on the table, it’s not too much of a stretch to ask them to pass that bowl to another person, or carry the bowl from the counter to the table when dinner is ready. Getting them involved with cooking and baking is also a wonderful way for them to interact with food. My son will help measure, stir, whisk, roll, and flip several types of foods that he would never dream of eating. That’s ok. He is seeing the food, smelling it, and having fun, which helps him to appreciate food even if he can’t handle to texture or taste.
  • The Challenge Item
    Something I’ve started doing with foods that my son doesn’t like, but are only a little stretch from something he does like, is to introduce it as a “challenge item.” We make it like a game. I’ll add an unliked food to his plate–again reassuring him that he does not have to eat it–but encouraging him interact with it in some other way. If he can lean down and sniff the food (Step 3), or touch the food with the tip of his finger (Step 4), we cheer and celebrate!

    The best challenge food we ever did was taco shells. One night the rest of us were going to eat tacos. (A sensory nightmare for my autistic son. There are far too many components, each with its own taste, texture, smell, and colour!) I knew this would be a no-go, and made him an alternative meal of KD mac and cheese. As I was preparing the food, I realized that one component wasn’t quite as foreign as the rest. The hard crunchy shells were close to Doritos chips, which he does enjoy, so I made a taco shell a “challenge item” that night.

    I put the taco shell on his plate with his macaroni, and let him know it was just a challenge item. He knows by now that he is not required to eat it, so he wasn’t worried. He sniffed the shell, and noticed it didn’t have much of a smell at all. He touched it, and noticed the texture was just like Doritos. Eventually, I encouraged him to give it a little lick. He did, and he didn’t mind it. It was just a salty chip. I suggested perhaps he could break the shell, and use it to scoop up some macaroni like a spoon, but he did me one better. He scooped a couple spoonfuls into the shell and ate it like a taco, how everyone else at the table was eating it!

    This has been our quickest victory to-date. It usually takes many more attempts to go from Step 2 to Step 5, but this is a fun example of how the steps work.
  • The “No Thank You” Plate
    Something my son’s Feeding Therapist recommends is a “No Thank You” plate. If your child can handle Steps 1-3, one way to move them to Step 4: Touch, is to place a small empty plate next to their dinner plate. Now, instead of “You don’t have to eat it,” you can transition to “You can take anything off your plate you don’t want and put it here on the No Thank You plate. You don’t have to eat the things you put on your No Thank You plate.”

    This, of course, gets them touching the food. It can also cause them to smell it more, and even taste it a little, because the smell and flavor will remain on their fingers. This is a fantastic step for picky eaters and problem feeders. It is a little bit more difficult for children with a sensory-based Feeding Disorder, since touching something that is a sensory problem is a very big deal! It’s scary!

    If you have a sensory child, go slow with this one, or try starting with disliked foods that are disliked because of their taste instead of their texture. Remember, asking a child with sensory issues to touch a food they have issues with is the same as asking someone who is terrified of snakes to pet one. It’s not “just food” to someone with a Sensory Processing Disorder or a sensory-based Feeding Disorder. It can actually be traumatic.
Dr. Kerry Magro is an Autistic adult who advocates for himself & others on the Spectrum.

How Far We’ve Come

My son has been going to Feeding Therapy for about a year now. He makes his own breakfast every morning. He has four different (balanced!) lunch meals that I can pack into his lunchbox on rotation. His current favourite food is Kraft Dinner macaroni and cheese, so his therapist alerted me to the existence of KD Shakers–Kraft Dinner powdered cheese in a can. We are using that to expand the types of pasta noodles he will eat, slowly but surely.

We recently went to visit a friend over suppertime. I had loaded my purse with favourite snacks, but decided to hold back and not offer them right away. I wanted to see how how my son would handle it. Supper that night was spaghetti and meat sauce. After a look at the table, he took the initiative to speak to our host all by himself: “Do you have… any ketchup… please?” He ate plain spaghetti noodles with a bit of ketchup stirred in as sauce, and ate it with everyone else at the table without panicking. A huge win in our world.

Patience is a Virtue

Since I shared a couple success stories, I want to also share a more typical story. It is so important to remember that overcoming a Feeding Disorder does not happen overnight.

Before my son was diagnosed with his Feeding Disorder, and before I even knew that Feeding Therapy existed, I decided I had to tackle the peanut butter sandwich dilemma in our home. At this time, my son would eat a handful of snack items, but the only thing resembling a meal that he would eat was a peanut butter sandwich. He was going to be starting Kindergarten in approximately a year’s time at a nut-free school, so I was desperate to add to his repertoire. Thankfully, I already knew he was autistic, and had experience teaching him. I knew that slow and steady was the only way.

Instead of taking his sandwiches away, I began switching up the appearance of his sandwiches, by cutting them different ways. Eventually I tried a sandwich with toasted bread. Then I tried switching the types of bread.

This process took almost an entire year. Slow and steady, parents, slow and steady. However, at the end of that year, I was happy to report that he could eat a peanut butter sandwich: toasted or untoasted; cut vertically, horizontally, or diagonally; on white, brown or rye!

I had managed to increase his snack variety at the same time, adding a couple more flavours of crackers and a couple more flavours of apple/fruit sauce. So for his first few months of Kindergarten, his menu looked like this:
Breakfast: A toasted peanut butter sandwich
School Lunch: A variety of crackers dipped into a variety of apple sauces
Supper: An untoasted peanut butter sandwich, cut differently from his breakfast sandwich.

Aaaaaand then he burnt out peanut butter sandwiches and refused to eat them for three years.

Kraft Dinner in a taco shell. Spaghetti with ketchup. Crackers dipped in apple sauce. These are just a few of the odd combinations I’ve served over the years, and I have no doubt there will be more. Riding the waves of food jags is one of my biggest parenting challenges–perhaps yours as well–but I promise it is survivable. If you are in a stressful season of helping a loved one through a Feeding Disorder, look for the teeniest, tiniest alterations you can to include variety. Don’t struggle all alone; ask for a referral to a Feeding Therapist to have someone knowledgeable in your corner. And above all, keep in mind that no food is a bad food at this stage–no matter how odd it sounds! Keep going, one bite at a time. I’m cheering for you!

Disclosure: No affiliations here! While this page may contain links to products, I am not an affiliate or ambassador for any brand. I do not receive commission or kickback of any kind for recommending products. Just sharing stuff I love, and hope it helps someone. If you wish to support my blog in some way, please consider following me on social media and sharing my links with your friends. -Ashley

© 2023 Ashley Lilley – First time commenting? Please read my Comment Policy.

4 thoughts on “Kraft Dinner in a Taco Shell (and Other Things I Never Thought I’d Cook)

  1. Fantastic Ashley! You’re a great mom!
    If your parents and their parents and their parents had known what you just shared, life (at least the eating part of life) would have been so much easier and more fun too!
    I can’t remember eating anything healthy until I was at least a teenager. My staple from grade one to grade nine was peanut butter and honey sandwiches. (And cookies of course!)

    Thanks for the info and for the tips!


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