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Play With Your Food

Many of the activities that I’m going to suggest can be done for free or very cheaply. It’s also important to realize that you don’t have to do all these things the first week. Dealing with a feeding disorder takes time and it takes patience. I try to do at least one food related activity a day, and sometimes that just means doing a coloring activity. Other days we have much more time and we are able to have pretend picnic, watch a video, and have some good sensory play. As you read through this section please understand that I’m not suggesting you buy expensive produce (blueberries cost an arm and a leg) to ‘paint’ with all the time, it’s just something to try. When Ewan wants to come into the kitchen to watch his dad cook (oh yeah, my husband rules the kitchen not me) it’s not always possible because the two year old wants to run havoc in the cabinets and Ewan must settle for watching from the doorway. The point I really want to get across to all the families dealing with this is that eating is not instinctual for some kids on the autism spectrum and we do have to take the time to break food and meal times down into ‘teachable moments’. Those moments can be as long or as short as you or your child can handle but they do need to be consistent and a part of life.
 
Cooking is Chemistry
Cooking is chemistry. I know most of you didn’t realize that you were performing experiments in the kitchen every time you baked that chicken for dinner, but you are and you are a kitchen scientist when you do. Chemistry, broken down into its simplest form, is changing the nature of something into something else on a chemical level. 
 
I will never forget hearing about this in a college chemistry class. We were classifying things into chemical changes or physical changes and the first example the professor puts out there is baked chicken. I assumed that it would be a physical change because the chicken browns as it cooks. Alas, I was wrong, as it was a chemical change since you can’t make cooked chicken raw again. Using the cooking as chemistry mindset works great for your older kids but let’s not count those younger children out just yet. 
 
One of the first chemical changes we see as a young child is when we make that first pitcher of Kool-Aid. And you thought Kool-Aid was just a drink. Not so! It’s a chemistry experiment for your toddler that does not involve blowing a hole in your kitchen wall. It’s as simple as taking the mundane, like making a pitcher of Kool-Aid, and integrating the concepts of the process into the wider picture. Kool-Aid teaches concepts about color, wet and dry (remember it starts as a powder), and change. We can measure Kool-Aid, we can classify Kool-Aid, we can observe the change when Kool-Aid is made and we can count how many packets of Kool-Aid it takes to make black Kool-Aid! 
 
From there we can consider what happens to food when you freeze it, leave it out overnight, bake it, fry it, cut it, blend it, and combine it with other foods and ingredients. When my son got his communication device, there was a page that included all the ingredients someone would need to ask for or need while cooking. I assumed that a toddler like him would have no need for that kind of page and I deleted it in favor of something more functional. I would only add that page back after meeting with the feeding team a few months later. Children are interested in ingredients and do need to know what they are and what they do when added to something else. A lot of the time children are not inherently interested in food or ingredients and we have to take the time to show them how fun experimenting and playing with food can be.
 
Chemistry / Food Websites
 
VIDEOS              
 Videos about food and food production are hard to come by but can bring about a ‘light bulb’ kind of moment for a child on the spectrum. We were lucky enough to be paying attention when our son saw one and had his. Not too often, Cable TV can have a really positive impact on a child. We do have cable and we have a very nifty feature called Video on Demand that includes programs by MagRack. These are generally educational videos for adults about cooking, music, photography, but they also have a series for children called Kid Pass. Kid Pass has about eight programs that change every month and have short clips of educational song-type shows or something about trains, trucks, farms, oceans, and agriculture. 
Ewan happened to be watching the agriculture one when the video began to show where apples come from and took the children all the way to the factory where they are processed, to the store where they are bought, and finally at the table. Ewan watched with an intense fascination that he usually reserves for the Thomas the Train videos. This caught our attention but it also clued us in to what it was going to take to get this child to eat food. During this video he asked for an apple and when we cut it up and put it on a plate he did the most amazing thing—he ate it. 
 
This is when I started shouting to my husband; get the name of the video NOW. But the fun wasn’t over since the video then followed a potato into a potato chip, peanuts into peanut butter, and cows giving milk to make milk products and cheeses. I am dead serious when I say this kid proceeded to ask for each of the items shown on the video. First the apple, then some potato chips, peanut butter which he used as a dip for his apples and chips, and finally asking for milk and cheese. Now to be fair, Ewan was already eating chips, milk and cheese but the apple and peanut butter and certainly the combination of dipping food into the peanut butter was completely new. The feeding team had explained to me that I was going to have to do some type of food education for Ewan but I just didn’t get it until the day Ewan watched that video. 
 
Informational Websites
There are a wide variety of websites that kids can play games on. Some are for mom and dad but have a little section for kids. Most likely these are for older kids that can handle using a mouse. Younger children can participate in these kinds of games but usually mom or dad is going to have to operate that mouse. A new website that has just come out by Discovery that is called Cosmeo has some really quality learning tools on it. They have a wide (and I mean wide) selection of videos about any topic you can think of. Some of the video clips are short which is perfect for the child with a short attention span or the child who has to get up and move a lot. Other video clips are longer (like thirty minutes or so) and are geared for older kids but my son did watch them at almost 4. They are very concrete, they show real photos of what they are discussing and there is very little singing. So if you have a little guy or girl that is serious and not into the sing-songy kind of program, these videos are just right for you. There is a subscription fee for this program though, of $9.95 a month but if you have more than one child this website offers topics that go from kindergarten to 12th grade.
 
Photos
I didn’t know about many of the available U.S. Government website photos until I tried to make a specialty cake for my son’s 4th birthday. My husband and I thought it would be cool to take all of Ewan’s favorite things (at the time it was space stuff, spiders, trains, tractors, monster trucks, volcanoes and clocks) and transfer the images to edible paper and slap it all on a sheet cake. When I asked the bakery at our local supermarket about making this, the only requirement they had was that I bring in copyright permission for all the professional photos. Great, I thought. Here it is a Thursday and I need this cool cake by Sunday, how in the heck am I going to get permission from NASA and the USGS by then? 
 
What I found out when I downloaded the images from NASA and the USGS is that these images were part of the public domain and could NOT be copyrighted. So basically, I got these totally awesome photos from space and of erupting volcanoes for free. 
This brings me to the USDA website. Now I have used this site before to search for food education products and nutritional information but I just never thought to search for images from this site. DUH. They have tons of good quality photos, free of charge, ranging from farms, tractors and equipment, to grocery store photos, to seeds and plants and food and even animals. So if we are trying to tie some photos in to our teachable moments, here’s a way to get them for free. There are also photos of kids at school lunches in a cafeteria and all of them sufficiently happy to be there (surely they were paid). This website also has link to other agencies such as Food and Nutrition Services which has clip art for kids and parents to use but also has free video clips for children to watch about eating healthy and mealtimes.
 
Art with food
Take a look at all the colors the next time you are in the garden or in the grocery store produce department. Now all the colors that you see can be used to finger paint or even paint with a paintbrush. These colors will be very muted so don’t expect a grape to make some wild purple color, but adding a little food color might help. Foods can be fruits like grapes and strawberries, kiwi and bananas or vegetables like green peppers and red peppers or yellow peppers and green beans, etc… Don’t forget chocolate pudding, yummm.
 
Does anyone remember the movie with Rosie O’Donnell where she and Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Esteves were undercover police living as a family? Not only is this movie a total classic and a good way to spend an hour and a half but also Rosie’s character shows some real creativity in the kitchen. She had to make a dinner for several people and everything she made either had a theme to it, or it was in the shape of something. I believe there was some type of armadillo and some penguins—it was great. Those of you that remember are laughing right now. This is a ploy that a lot of parents with typically developing kids will use to get their children to eat. 
 
Sometimes this works with your kids on the spectrum. It just depends on how literal and concrete they are. You might scare the crap out of kid by making spiders out of marshmallows and pretzels (certainly without them watching you do it). But, it also might work for some of our kids too. I would really start with the foods your child already eats because that takes some of the “what the heck is going on here” feeling out. I would remind everyone though, that this is something that these little guys and girls need to be involved in from the start. Are you going to get upset because your child wants to add lots of extras that make your spider look more like an iguana? No. Are you going to get upset that you went through all that trouble to make these shapes and your child still wouldn’t try any? No. Remember to take the frustration level out and the high expectations out. As you are doing this remember it’s just supposed to be another fun activity where if we are lucky your child will lick their fingers and get exposed to some flavors.
 
Scavenger Hunt
Child has to use food items or has to take a bite of a food, or has to find all the ingredients to make something. Involves touching food, tasting food, can make it so that they must also smell the food or even lick the food.
 
Food Bingo
People play bingo with food cards all the time, that’s nothing new. I’m suggesting we take that one step further by actually using food. Part of the problem with these kiddos is that they don’t even like to touch the food and if you’ve got a child with fine motor problems who can’t use a spoon or fork efficiently you’ve got a bit of a dilemma. This kind of game takes the stress of having to eat the food off the child. We’re just asking the kiddo to play with his or her food. At some point, or with other kids you can start adding bites when you make a diagonal or straight line. Bingo is cool, and unless you are a strict hard-core bingo player don’t just do straight lines or blackout, make circles or squares, or whatever! I would suggest that with a black out card, all the foods go together well!
 
Everyday Quick Activities
My hall closet is stocked full of crayons, paper, paint, stickers, and play-dough. These are some fun, cheap activities that you can do to help your child understand about food. Admittedly, these activities are not best suited for the older child. But for the young children out there these are some quick and fairly painless food related activities. 
This still requires mom to get creative in the types of things to buy for these activities. When we are playing with stickers (my son has some issues with sticky stuff and his fingers) I try to find a box that has all different kinds in it. I go to the discount dollar stores that usually carry some kind of sticker box combination. There is no need to buy expensive stickers for this kind of activity. 
 
What we usually end up doing is a coloring activity that involves Ewan coloring some food pictures (found off the web for free or really cheap) and then plastering food stickers all over it. So it’s a nice collage when he’s finished. As he puts all the stickers on, we simply label them as carrots, broccoli, etc… or we might label them as fruits and vegetables, or we might label them by their texture (this is after he’s learned the name of it). If I’m feeling really organized then I would have a few of these foods on the table to play with. The good thing about some foods is that they have a tough skin and you can play with it and then later prepare it and eat it without wasting the food (cucumber comes to mind). 
 
We also keep washable paint in our closet that allows us to do some finger painting. We can’t always make the paint with foods so the next best thing is to use paint but to have sponges in the shape of food. Then your child can stamp out shapes of food all day long and make great works of art. Now if you are really talented you can combine the food shape sponges with the ‘food paint’ and what you end up with is something similar to homemade scratch and sniff pictures. This also helps with the kiddo who isn’t quite ready to get their fingers really dirty yet but many sponges have a type of ridge for a handle that allows a child to practice some fine motor skills. 
 
I have lots of other arts and crafts in my closet that you can be creative with. We have a nice collection of colorful pipe cleaners that we bend into shapes and objects, or at least we try to. My stick figures take some imagination to understand (like all great artists I am not appreciated in my time). Don’t make the mistake of assuming that if you are not making objects of foods that your child should be eating all the time then it’s a waste of time. Not at all. One day we spent some time making spiders and spider webs out of these pipe cleaners and then I added a little fly to the web so that the spider could eat. This just reinforces the idea that lots of thing besides little boys and girls have to eat.