Meeting the Nutrition Needs of Children with Disabilities

Children with disabilities often have special nutritional needs. In this article from Head Start Bulletin #48, health managers, disabilities coordinators, and staff will learn how to meet the nutritional needs of children with disabilities.

The following is an excerpt from...
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by the National Head Start Disabilities Training Contractor, Education Development Center, Newton, Massachusetts

Nutrition is a major aspect of the health component and a critical consideration for many children with disabilities. Children with disabilities have a range of nutritional needs, from foods causing mild negative reactions to others posing serious threats to their healthy development. Following are a few medical conditions in which nutrition plays a major role:

Phenylketonuria (PKU) is a genetic disorder. Children with PKU lack the enzyme needed to metabolize chemicals in the body. A special diet is required and eating the wrong foods can lead to mental retardation.

Diabetes mellitus is a chronic condition characterized by increased sugar levels in the blood. Children with diabetes need to eat frequent snacks, and, depending on their insulin levels, they may need foods with high sugar content or no sugar at all.

Celiac disease is a chronic nutritional condition caused by an inability to metabolize gluten, a mixture of proteins that can be found in many cereal grains. This condition can be controlled with a gluten-free diet.

"Meal time is one of the important times of the day in my classroom. It's a time when children come together. And I try to use this time to meet the diverse needs of my children. I provide adaptive equipment: a plate with a suction cup that sticks to the table, and a bent spoon-to make eating easier for a child with cerebral palsy. Two sets of this 'dinnerware' are available so that other children can use them as well. Children with language delays are invited to join in 'table talk.' I invite them to talk about what foods they like and don't like and what special discoveries they made that morning. And when children have special dietary needs, I work with the nutrition consultant, the disabilities coordinator, and the children's parents to make sure They are getting the foods they need. My children have taught me a lot about the importance of understanding the child's total needs-physically, emotionally, socially, and nutritionally."

Tip and Guidlines: What Head Start Programs Can Do

Head Start programs can take a number of steps to meet the needs of children with disabilities as follows:

  • Get the Help You Need. Before beginning the year, look at the children's health and other records. If you do not understand specific terms, consult a nurse, pediatrician, the nutrition consultant, the disabilities coordinator, or other specialist. If children are taking medication, determine what the medication is and how it affects the child's nutritional needs. If a condition calls for a special diet, ask the nutrition consultant to help you and the cook make practical adaptations. By knowing how to prepare the appropriate foods, a child with a certain condition will not feel left out during celebrations.

  • Conduct Staff Training. Identify areas in which staff knowledge is needed in the area of disabilities services so that administrators can develop a training program that helps staff understand and respond to the special needs of children.

  • Build Links with Families. Listen to the parents. Ask them what the child knows about his or her condition, what modifications they have made at home, what steps they have taken to help the child monitor his or her own diet, what foods the child enjoys, and what food substitutes may be used. You can also link parents to additional resources and share any creative adaptations you have discovered.

  • Share Information. Adults who work in the classroom — parents, volunteers, aides, college interns, and program staff from cooks to coordinators — must be aware of and understand the specific dietary needs and restrictions of all children who attend the program.

  • Help Children to Understand Their Own Needs. If children have dietary restrictions, give them self- monitoring responsibilities that are in keeping with their developmental abilities and age and praise them when they are able to monitor their own diet.

  • Help Children to Understand the Needs of Their classmates. If children ask why a classmate isn't drinking milk when everyone else is, simply explain that the classmate is allergic to milk and, if s/he drinks it, s/he will not feel well. If children react with fear, take them aside to answer any questions they may have.

A number of helpful resources are available within the program, the local community, and Head Start. Resource Access Projects (RAP's), for example, provide technical assistance, materials, and training sessions tailored to meet the needs of particular programs and the children they serve.

By understanding children with disabilities and their needs, and taking those extra steps that make them (and others) feel comfortable with their differences, they will feel valued for who they are and what they have to offer. That is what inclusion is all about.

"Meeting the Nutrition Needs of Children with Disabilities." National Head Start Disabilities Training Contractor, Education Development Center, Newton, Massachusetts. Nutrition. Head Start Bulletin #48. DHHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. 1993. English.

Last Reviewed: November 2009

Last Updated: October 3, 2014