Kids Benefit From Genesis Food School

Helping youngsters with high sensitivity to foods

Tayden Bulten first smells the peanut butter on the bread. He brings it closer to his mouth and cautiously takes a small bite. Then another.

“He’s eating peanut butter!’’ his mother, Andrea Moore, said as a few tears ran down her cheeks. “He has never eaten peanut butter.’’

  • Tayden Bulten and occupational therapist Megan Long play a game with graham crackers at the Genesis Food School, held at the Genesis Pediatric Therapy Center in Bettendorf. Since coming to the school, Tayden has learned to eat peanut butter.
  • Grant Nolan and speech pathologist Deb Crooks have fun with food while making smores at the Genesis Food School for children with a high sensitivity to foods and feeding difficulties.

It’s an important breakthrough for the 2-year-old, who attends Food School at the Genesis Pediatric Therapy Center in Bettendorf. Tayden and the two other boys in his class are not picky eaters. They are problem eaters. They have a high sensitivity to how food feels, smells, tastes, the temperature of it, and, appearance.

They actually have a fear of certain foods. Their parents tell stories of birthday parties having gone badly because their child can’t tolerate having a cake anywhere near them.

It’s not uncommon for children with feeding difficulties related to Sensory Processing Disorder to have a diet limited to less than 15 foods.

For any number of reasons, the children in this Genesis Food School are among the estimated 20 percent of children from birth to 5 years old who experience feeding difficulties. Children on the autism spectrum, children with Down Syndrome, premature children and children diagnosed with ADHD are more likely to have feeding difficulties.

Sometimes the rejection of foods is sensory. Unlike kids who transition naturally from the bottle to baby foods and then to finger foods by picking them up and popping them in their mouth, some kids even at a very young age can’t bear to pick up a food because it is wet, cold or they don’t like the feel of the food.

The rejection can also be physical because of gastroesophageal reflux. It hurts to eat. These kids may have vomited frequently when they were on the bottle.

“If they don’t like the touch, texture or taste, why would they eat it?’’ explained Megan Long, occupational therapist at Genesis Food School. “If they think it will hurt to eat a food, why would they eat it?”

Genesis Food School works on a weekly basis to help expand the diets of four different groups of children, ranging in age between 18 months and 10 years old. It’s a long journey, said speech pathologist Deb Crooks.

“We see a great deal of success but not overnight,’’ Crooks said. “You have to be in this for the long haul. One week a child may try something, then come back the next week and want nothing to do with it.’’

On some days, however, there are breakthroughs like Tayden trying peanut butter for the first time. A week later, his mother reported he ate a peanut butter sandwich every day that week.

Tayden’s limited list of acceptable foods includes toddler foods from jars. His mother watches labels closely, trying to find foods with the most calories and protein. “You read labels. You find out that the lasagna in the jar is 150 calories, so you give him more of that,’’ she explained.

The social issue

Ben Barnds squeezes cheese onto a taco shell.

Ben Barnds squeezes cheese onto a taco shell.

The limited food favorites for kids like Tayden can lead to social conflict, edging toward social stigma for the kids and parents. Andrea Moore has heard all the well-intentioned but uninformed advice.

There is the 1960s era, “There are children starving in China” approach of making a child sit until he eats everything. It will never ever happen with these kids. There is the slightly less strong-armed tactic: “He’ll eat when he is hungry.” That isn’t the case with kids like these. They will eat only when something they like is available to them.

“People just can’t understand until they’ve been around it. You have to keep making the same things all the time,’’ Andrea Moore said. “If you want to eat out, you go to the same restaurants because you know there is something your child will eat there.’’

Kids like Tayden may eat French fries, but only with a certain cut. They may eat chicken nuggets from one company or restaurant, but not from another. Tayden’s classmate, Ben Barnds, 3, will eat pizza but only from Olive Garden and Biaggi’s.

“This is very stressful for these families,’’ Crooks said. “We ask that a family member attend each session. Sometimes they blame themselves. But parents didn’t cause this. On the flip side, they are instrumental in helping their child eat and enjoy more foods.’’

Food School is one hour each week. Tayden and his two classmates start with physical activity in the gym for about 20 minutes to get their bodies calm and ready to eat. Movement can help stimulate appetites, too.

From the gym, Crooks and Long take the kids to the dining room. Parents are on the other side of the one-way mirror. The eating sessions are a theme party. One day during a Halloween party, the kids made “spiders” using crackers with peanut butter and pretzels for legs and eyes for raisins.

“We make food fun. The kids learn to make friends with their food. The hope is after multiple exposures in a fun environment, the kids will maybe put the food to their lips or even try it,’’ Crooks added.

The kids are encouraged to play with their food. Having food on their face and hands, or “wearing’’ their food is encouraged. Kids in this class, for whatever reason, didn’t play with food as they learned to eat. They didn’t like the temperature or the texture. They didn’t want their hands to get messy.

But playing with food is one of the steps toward trying it. Food School students crush crackers, toss raisins, and stick pretzel sticks in a bun holding a hot dog and ketchup.

Long put the strip of hot dog under her nose like a mustache. She put it above her eyes like eyebrows. She coaxed one of the boys to put it to his mouth and ear like a phone. A bun becomes a character who can talk. When food is discarded, the boys kiss it goodbye. It’s a start toward actually putting the food in their mouth. Some kids are so adverse to touching the food offered that they immediately clean their hands with wet towels available to them. But touching is progress. All of the parents said their sons have added foods to their palates thanks to the class.

Small Steps

Feeding difficulties in children can be misunderstood by childcare providers, schools, relatives, family friends and even some pediatricians. A physician referral is required for the class. It helps to intervene early with kids who have very limited food favorites. “The earlier we can get kids in an environment with their peers who have the same issue, the better opportunity we have to make a difference,’’ Long said.