Mealtime Myths

1) Eating is the Body’s number 1 priority.

Actually, BREATHING is the Body’s number one priority. Without good oxygenation, eating is resisted because we shut off our airway briefly with every swallow and our oxygen level decreases lightly (or we have to significantly increase our respiratory rate to maintain oxygen such that we are burning off any calories we take in). POSTURAL STABILITY (“not falling on your head”) is actually the Body’s priority number two. Eating is only Body priority number three.

2) Eating is instinctive.

Eating is only instinctive for the first month of life. After the first month of life, we have a set of primitive motor reflexes (rooting, sucking, swallowing) which take over and keep us eating while we lay down pathways in the brain for voluntary motor control over eating. Between the end of the 5th or 6th months of life, these primitive motor reflexes drop out and eating is essentially solely a learned motor behavior.

3) Eating is easy.

Eating is the MOST complex physical task that human beings engage in. It is the ONLY human task which requires every one of your organ systems and requires that those systems work correctly. In addition, EVERY muscle in the body is involved (one swallow, for example, takes 26 muscles and 6 cranial nerves to coordinate). Plus, eating is the ONLY task children do which requires simultaneous coordination of all of our sensory systems.

4) Eating is a two-step process; 1 – you sit down, 2 – you eat.

There are actually 32 steps, more or less, in the process of learning to eat.

5) It is not appropriate to touch or play with your food.

Wearing your food is part of the normal developmental process of learning to eat it. You can learn a great deal about the foods, BEFORE they even get into your mouth, by touching them and playing with them first. It is “play with a purpose”.

6) If a child is hungry enough, he/she will eat. They will not starve themselves.

This is true for about 94-96% of the pediatric population. For the other 4-6% of the pediatric population who have feeding problems, they will “starve themselves” (usually inadvertently however). For the majority of these children, feeding doesn’t work and/or it hurts, and no amount of hunger is going to overcome that fact. Children are organized simply: if it hurts – don’t do it. If it doesn’t work – cry and/or run away. For children who have developemental or medical problems with eating, their appetite often becomes suppressed over time, such that they no longer respond correctly to appetite as a cue to eat sufficiently.

7) Children only need to eat 3 times a day.

In order to meet their daily calorie requirements, children would have to eat adult sized meals if they only eat 3 times a day. Given their small stomachs and attention spans, it takes most children 5 -6 meals a day to get in enough calories for proper growth and development.

8) If a child won’t eat, there is either a behavioral or an organic problem.

Various research studies, and the data from our Center, indicates that between 65-95% of all children with feeding problems have a combination of behavioral and organic problems. If you start with a physical problem with eating, you are going to quickly learn that eating doesn’t work/hurts and a set of behaviors to avoid the task will become set into place. If you start with a purely behavioral/environmental reason for not eating, your compromised nutritional status will quickly begin to cause organic problems. As such, it is not useful to create a dichotomy in diagnosing or treating feeding problems.

9) Certain foods are only to be eaten at certain times of the day (i.e. Breakfast foods only for breakfast, lunch foods only at lunch, snack foods only at snacks, dinner foods only for dinner), and only certain foods are “healthy for you”

Food is just food. It is not breakfast food, lunch or dinner food, snack food or junk food. Food is either a protein, a carbohydrate or a fruit/vegetable. While some foods do have more nutritional value than others, labeling foods as “good” or “bad” or “only to be eaten at X meal”, is not helpful in teaching children to eat or to have a healthy relationship with food. If a child eats chicken and peas best at breakfast, that is okay. In addition, the so called “junk” foods actually play a huge role as stepping stones in teaching children with feeding difficulties to learn to eat a wide variety of other foods because these “bad” foods are typically easy to manage from an oral-motor standpoint, and/or they have a large sensory appeal.

10) Mealtimes are a solemn occasions, Children are to be seen and not heard.

Feeding is supposed to be fun. Children eat so much better when their food is engaging, interesting and attractive. They also eat better when mealtime conversations are focused on talking about the food and teaching the “physics of food”. So go ahead – enjoy your food and the feeding experience with your child! Be noisy and play with your food!

Copyright, 2002 Kay A. Toomey, PhD