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By now you may have seen this adorable aqua “mealtime companion” popping up in your instagram feed. Bloggers, moms and therapists are all sharing praises. Their picky eating toddlers are trying new foods and having fun at mealtime, but you wonder why and how does he actually work?
It may surprise you, but Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory from 1977 explains it all.
Bandura’s social learning theory says that people learn from one another through observation, imitation, and modeling. In his words, “Most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.”
You may have not considered it, but eating is a behavior. One of the ways children learn to eat is by observing and imitating those around them. Family meals and lunchtime in the school cafeteria are important because they offer opportunities for children to learn from others. After watching their parent eat broccoli for the 15th time or the child sitting next to them take a bite of carrot, they learn… and later on, they imitate that behavior.
In reality though, mealtime is not always that simple. It can be difficult to get the whole family to sit down together everyday. School lunch can be quick and peers may not always make the best role models. Mealtime can be rushed, chaotic, or even isolated. Mom and dad are busy. The children are picky. They’re tired and hungry. They refuse foods. They throw. The stress level can get very high for everyone involved.
In walks Milton. He’s a silly, happy, bright pop of color that puts a twist on the typical routine, pulls people together, and brings a sense of excitement to the table. He works like this…
Prior to mealtime, mom, dad, and their little one read the Meet Milton book. Their child listens to a story about a friend named Milton who grows tired of bland, unhealthy food on the moon, hops on a saucer and heads to earth in search of better food to eat. He learns that Milton loves to eat healthy, brightly colored foods. So much in fact that the color of his skin becomes brighter and brighter as he eats his way around his new home. While listening, the little one shares in the excitement with mom and dad and learns how much fun eating can be.
When Milton comes to the table, the child observers his mom and dad feeding Milton fruits and vegetables. Milton models taking bites, chewing, sitting nicely at the table, and parents praise these positive behaviors. After observing the positive reinforcement Milton gets for healthy eating, the child decides to imitate. He picks up a new food and feeds Milton. He gets pleasure from the silly interaction with his new friend and the discussion about bite size and chewing, or new textures and flavors that takes place at the table. Later, he takes a bite of that new food in imitation of his new friend. Milton cheers, mom and dad smile and clap, and the child learns through this experience that trying new food feels good. A few days later when the same food appears on his plate again, he remembers how much fun he had with Milton and his parents, and he takes a bite again. It’s a success!
Now for some children, the first bite of broccoli or peas or carrots might not go as well. Another little one puts the piece of broccoli into her mouth, and while the family is praising her, she’s overwhelmed with the strong flavor and mushy texture and spits it out. But, that’s okay. Rather than focusing on the uncomfortable experience, her parents encourage her to pick up the broccoli with her hands and “give a bite to Milton”. When she puts the broccoli into Milton’s mouth, mom and dad cheer, Milton says “chomp chomp YUM!” and everyone giggles. As she picks up the broccoli and puts it into Milton’s mouth, she learns it’s okay to touch that new and “scary” food. She’s experiencing it’s smell, the feel of it on her hands, she’s getting closer to trying it the next time. For her, that experience is no longer negative. While she may still be hesitant about touching the new food, she’s created a positive memory. That challenging task is rewarded with a fun interaction and praise from mom and dad. When Milton comes to the table again, mom, dad, and Milton will do the same, and maybe she’ll be ready to take a taste of broccoli this time around!
If you have a picky eater, if you’re feeling anxious each time the dinner bell rings, or if mealtime at your house has become a battlefield, Milton may be just the tool to help turn things around. Everyone needs a companion at the table and a good role-model for courageous, healthy eating!
Catherine Callahan (M.S., CCC-SLP/CLC) is a speech-language pathologist, pediatric feeding specialist, and mother of two beautiful little boys. You may recognize her as the expert in the fun instructional videos found on our Expert Tips page. You can also follow Catherine on Instagram and her Chi Kids Speech & Feeding website for more great tips when it comes to feeding and picky eating.