Mealtime used to come with massive amounts of stress and anxiety for Jen Anderson, of Kirkland, Washington. "I dreaded meals to the point where I felt sick to my stomach in anticipation," she says. Her son Levi was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 1/2 years old, and getting him to eat was nearly impossible. "Levi couldn't stay seated for more than 10 seconds at a time," she says. "He didn't recognize the feeling of hunger. And only ate foods that were starchy and unhealthy." Some days, he'd barely eat anything at all.
Of course, Jen and her husband tried everything. They spent thousands of dollars on a board-certified behavioral analyst who would make house calls to work with Levi. "Even she couldn't get him to eat." They'd make a blanket fort under the table, give him toothpicks instead of a fork, let him eat in front of the television, and anything else they could think of.
It was a painful situation for many reasons. For starters, they worried their son wasn't getting the nutrients he needed. They also got disapproving comments and looks from people (including friends and family!). They couldn't go out to eat as a family and Jen even started avoiding other moms and play dates. Jen was at the end of her rope and didn't know what to do.
But then, nearly two years ago when Levi was 5 1/2, she found something that changed their lives: a plate.
The plate is simple, yet brilliant: It's a melamine tray that's divided into small compartments and looks like a game board. Parents can portion out food into manageable bites (that won't touch each other!) and kids get to follow along and end at the finish line, where a special covered treat awaits. It even has a cute name — Dinner Winner — and now comes in several themes featuring dinosaurs, pirates, superheroes, and more.
Buy: Fred Dinner Winner Kids' Tray, $20
How They Found the Dinner Winner Plate
"My friend Julie had made a Facebook page called Homemade Happy Meals, where she posted pictures of healthy, fun kids meals to give other parents ideas. Mostly the page kind of made me feel like crap about myself because there was no way Levi would eat things like hummus or a caprese salad," Jen says. One day, Julie posted the plate and Jen instantly knew her son would love it. The plate made eating a game! How could it fail?
How the Dinner Winner Plate Went Over
Levi was so excited to use it. "The treat was the motivator," Jen says. "I knew he'd be willing to take one bite of a food he didn't like in order to get to the next one and closer to the prize." Sneakily, she just alternated between Levi's favorite and less-than-favorite foods. The very first time she tried the plate, something amazing happened: Levi ate every bite.
Now, she gets him to eat things like broccoli, cheese, fruit, cut-up sandwich squares, and a slew of other things she never even thought would be possible. And he actually asks if it's mealtime because he's so excited to use one of the plates. "He's entertained so he focuses," Jen explains. "Bites don't have to be prompted because the plate motivates him to do it on his own."
A happy ending for Levi, his parents, and even his non-autistic younger brother who likes to use the plates, too.
Have you used the Dinner Winner plate?