How to Minimize Mealtime Stress for Special Needs Children & Families

Studies have shown that sharing regular meals as a family has many benefits for children and their parents or caregivers. Participating in a mealtime ritual has been linked to stronger family bonds, healthier habits, better grades, and overall smarter choices. Making time to eat regular meals together and creating a comfortable dining space in your home is especially important for the safety and overall health of special needs children, too.

Children’s mealtime behavior can be stressful and overwhelming in general, but having children with special needs, such as Autism, can make it more difficult due to fear of new foods, refusing to eat specific foods, and so on. Nevertheless, it is so important to remember that time spent around your kitchen table with family and loved ones promotes comfort and stability; which is crucial for families with special needs children who benefit from routines.

Here are some tips you should know in order to make your dining space a comfortable hub in your home and to minimize mealtime stress for your family and special needs children.

 Provide Structured Mealtime Routines

Mealtime can be scary or unpredictable for special needs children. And supporting and anticipating their needs can be difficult. Often times you might be unsure what to do, but your support will go a long way in teaching invaluable skills necessary for developing healthy habits. Developing routines will help keep your child calm and in turn, make it easier to encourage proper food consumption that will be beneficial to their health and nutrition. Children with special needs, specifically Autism, benefit from structured routines, so keep this in mind during mealtime by using the same dining set for meals and by having everyone sit in the same place. This will provide a sense of security for your children since they will know what to expect and will feel safe sitting in the same spot that they are most familiar with.

Eating together is a great routine for special needs families to acquire and is imperative to the health and development of children. Parents and caregivers should prioritize regular meals and use this time as a learning opportunity for their children’s future well-being. However, it’s also important to keep in mind that this is specific routine should be an opportunity to bond as a family and share love and support, that way you can minimize the stress associated with the struggles of raising special needs children. Stress has a tendency to spill over into other aspects of our lives, so if you miss a meal or have to change the time here and there, don’t worry, forgive yourself and know you are doing your best for your child’s health!

Remember, regular mealtimes don’t have to be limited to dinner; any shared meal will benefit your child and allow you to provide structure and support in their lives. If breakfast is an easier more suitable time to gather together, then do that, just try to keep the time and place the same as often as possible! Depending on your child’s abilities, you can make mealtime routines more fun by designating easy tasks for them to complete, such as folding the table napkins or taking drink orders. Simple chores like these will make your child feel important and excited about their accomplishment, and will also help them look forward to dinnertime, which can sometimes be scary and overwhelming given the common struggles and fears associated with meals.

Consider Size and Shape of Dining Furniture

One way to minimize the stresses associated with family mealtime for those with special needs children is by creating a comfortable dining space. Make sure you consider the size and shape of dining room furniture for safety purposes. Safety should be a priority for children with special needs, so sturdy dining sets, like these here, are a must in order to limit injuries and discomfort. There are so many table styles and shapes available, which can make it difficult to choose the best option for your space, but in order to provide the most comfort, you should consider these factors.

Determining the best table shape for your space should be based on your family’s needs and on the size and shape of your dining area. Rectangular dining tables are more common, and they provide the most room for guests and food. The downside though is this table shape might be a bit too big to monitor children with special needs, especially if you have a smaller family. However, if you have a bigger family and dining space, rectangular tables provide enough room for necessary feeding equipment and for everyone to comfortably move chairs in and out. Square tables are better for smaller spaces and families, and look best in square shaped rooms. They also provide a comfortable amount of room for guests and food, while providing enough opportunity to teach mealtime independence. If you fall somewhere in the middle of a large and small dining space, you can opt for a round dining table. Round dining sets will provide a cozy and intimate setting where you can easily monitor your children and ensure they are getting proper nutrition, and an added benefit to round shaped tables is that they eliminate any injuries from bumping against table corners!

Encourage Open Conversation

Connecting as a family is so important for all families, but parents and caregivers with special needs children really need to make it their responsibility to teach healthy habits and mannerisms that will contribute to life skills. All kids love to mimic what they see and hear, so make sure meal time is a place for open and educational conversation. Conversing at the table helps your special needs child learn social skills that are imperative to academic and overall success in life.

Start with the basics and teach your children important phrases like please, thank you, and excuse me. Speak at the appropriate volume for the room and don’t yell or talk over one another. Other important manners to teach are chewing with your mouth closed, maintaining a safe eating pace, using napkins and utensils, and sitting appropriately in your chair.

Be supportive and patient as your child refines these learned skills. Spills, messes, and outbursts will happen, but handling with them with grace and love will make mealtime easier for everyone. By teaching these manners and habits early on, you will help your child develop important skills that make it easier to adjust and transition while in school and throughout the rest of their lives.