Staging Your Meal

Mealtime staging is an intentional method of food presentation that takes into account 1)
nutrition, 2) efficiency, and 3) skill development in order to optimize each meal to meet the needs of the child in that moment. So, as we wean, we pay good attention to a child’s eating age (calculated based on the time the child became an oral eater), while remembering that oral motor skills develop over time: kids learn to eat by eating. This means that most newly weaning
toddlers, for example, will be most skilled with purees, wet casseroles/ground textures, and fork mashable soft foods.

When presenting a meal for a kiddo, it’s important to present foods with the most nutrition at the easiest skill-level first. For some kids, that means that we start every meal with yogurt, pudding, mashed potatoes, hummus, guacamole, or some other food that offers the most calories, while requiring the least amount of skill. If the child is willing to be fed, we feed them, and if not, we offer loaded spoons or self-feeding opportunities.

The second part of the meal is when we’d offer the next level of nutrition at the next level of skill difficulty. This is where you might bring out soft-chopped foods like cooked veggies, grated cheese, soft pastas, canned or crock-potted meats, hash browns, etc. – all good calories, but requiring the child to use slightly more advanced skills. Then, the third part of the meal would include strips: toast, french-fry- size soft items that not only require chewing, but biting as well. These foods require the next level of skill advancement. These 3 stages can be offered separately (one, and then the other), or they can overlap (putting soft food on the tray while feeding purees, for example).

In this way, your child gets “the biggest bang for her buck” out of what you offer first. Then, at
stage two, your child might get a minimum to moderate amount, and at the final stage, your child gets to focus on skill development, with no pressure to consume more calories (because she got those good nutrients at the beginning).

Now here, I want to highlight the minimal place for crunchy or meltable crunchy food items.
These items often do not contain enough nutrition to be a prominent part of the wean, and should only be offered as a dessert or special treat. Of course, if your child is only willing to accept crunchy food items, then you’ll want to begin working on connecting those foods to new, softer foods.

In all, this process of staging your meal offers your child some great advantages: your child gets high calorie, nutrient dense foods right off the bat, AND your child gets pressure-free opportunities to try new things. What more could you ask for?

Becky Keifer, MA, CCC-SLP, Lead Feeding Therapist