3 Reasons Why Kids Get Hooked on “Kids’ Meals"

3 Reasons Why Kids Get Hooked on “Kids’ Meals”… and How to Change That
By Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP
*This post was originally published on ASHA’s online blog. The original can be found here.

Photo Credit: Echromatique via Compfight cc

Let me say this up front: I’m not condemning the American Kids’ Meal that is so common in fast food chains and family restaurants, but clearly I’m not keen on eating that type of food when there are other choices.   My own kids have certainly had their fair share of chicken nuggets, mac n’cheese and French fries, just to name a few of the comfort kid foods that predictably reappear on kids’ menus day after day.   This is not a blog about good vs. healthy nutrition, because most parents (including me) know that the traditional fast food fare is not healthy…and that’s exactly why parents want to change the statistics that 15 percent of preschoolers ask to go to McDonald’s  “at least once a day.”    The millions of dollars spent on advertising and toys to market kids meals certainly makes many of us frustrated when much less is spent on marketing a culture of wellness.  By hooked, I don’t mean addicted, although there is research that suggests that food addiction may be a serious component for a subset of the pediatric population Plus, the added sugars in processed foods have been found to be addictive in lab experiments.  But, for the purposes of this short article, let’s keep kids’ meals in this very small box:  Most kids love them.
Why am I writing about this for ASHA? As a pediatric SLP who focuses on feeding, one of the frequent comments I hear from parents is “As long we’ve got chicken nuggets,  then my kid will eat.”   Besides the obvious “just say no” solution, what parents truly are asking is,  “How do I expand my kid’s diet to include more than what’s on a kids’ menu?”  Whether we are considering our pediatric clients in feeding therapy or simply the garden-variety picky eater, that is an excellent question with not a very simple answer.
In feeding therapy, therapists take into account the child’s physiology (which includes the sensory system), the child’s gross motor, fine motor and oral motor skills  and also behaviors that affect feeding practices.  Therapists then create a treatment plan designed to help that specific child progress through the developmental process of eating.  While the nuances of learning to bite, chew and swallow a variety of foods are too complex to cover in a short blog post, here are just three of the reasons why kids get hooked on kids’ meals and some strategies to avoid being locked into the standard kids’ menu and begin to expand a child’s variety of preferred foods:

  1. Kids barely have to chew.  The common fast food chicken nugget is a chopped mixture of …well, if you want to know, click here.  Warning: it will ruin your appetite for chicken nuggets, so if your kids can read,  clicking might be the first solution.  However, in terms of oral motor skills, bites of chicken nuggets are a first food that even an almost toothless toddler can consume with relative ease.  Simply gum, squish and swallow.  Macaroni and cheese?  Oily French fries?  Ditto.  There’s  not a lot of chomping going on!
    • In feeding therapy, SLPs assess a child’s oral motor skills and may begin to address strengthening a child’s ability to use a rotary chew, manage the food easily and swallow safely.  Many of the families we work with eat fast food on a regular basis and we might start with those foods, but slowly over time, more variety is introduced.
    • For general picky eaters or those progressing in feeding therapy, the key is to offer small samplings of foods that DO require chewing, as long as a parent feels confident that their child is safe to do so.  Starting early with a variety of manageable solids, as described in this article for ASHA, is often the first step.   For older kids, the texture (and comfort) of “squish and swallow” foods can contribute to food jags.  Here are ten tips for preventing food jags, including how to build your child’s familiarity around something other than the drive-thru.

 

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