Ask the Expert: Featuring Catherine Callahan of ChiKids Speech & Feeding
VitaFam meet Catherine Callahan, MS, CCC-SLP, CLC of ChiKids Speech & Feeding, LLC. We are so excited to introduce you to this rockstar
VM: What is your background? When did you first become interested in nutrition and feeding?
CC: I hold an undergraduate degree in biology from Marquette University, and a masters’ degree in speech-language pathology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I always knew that I wanted to work in the medical field, and that I wanted to work with children. While I was studying at Madison, I took an awesome feeding and swallowing course from one of the leaders in the field, and I think it was from that point forward that I knew it was feeding. After grad school, I worked for two years at Advocate Hope Children’s Hospital in Chicago, and then moved on to Children’s Memorial Hospital (now the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago), where I continue to work today. From the beginning, I’ve worked with infants and children with feeding and swallowing, but I’ve really focused on it for the past 5 years as I began my private practice and business ChiKids Speech & Feeding.
VM: When did you get started on Instagram? How has your journey been so far?
CC: I started on Instagram 6 years ago. My sister in law was a lifestyle blogger at that time, and watching her inspired me. I knew people were doing this from a fashion angle, so why couldn’t we use this as a teaching method? When I started out, it was completely for fun, just a little creative outlet. About 2 years ago it really started to pick up momentum and actually became a business. My first major project was working with a company called Meals with Milton. I worked with them to create a silicone monster that families and professionals could use to help children learn to try new foods. From there, I began building relationships with other influencers in the feeding world, began working with brands, and continued to grow. In the summer of 2020, mid-Covid, TikTok reached out to me and invited me to join their only paid program. TikTok seemed completely unknown and funny to me, but it was a new opportunity with a lot of training so I went for it. I had always thought of Tik Tok as an app where people dance and lip sync, but I’ve come to know that there is a ton of meaningful content there too. I love the creative outlet that social media offers me, and I love that I have the opportunity to help so many families who would otherwise not get any support. I meet so many families from other countries, or from small towns without a feeding therapist to help them. While it’s a ton of work, I’m having fun learning how to do it, sharing my knowledge, and helping others. On top of that, it’s an extra source of income, which is nice.
VM: What’s your nutrition philosophy? Has this changed over time?
CC: As a speech-language pathologist my training and education centers more on the oral-motor and sensory aspects of the mouth, and the swallowing physiology, rather than nutrition. However, in the books I’ve read, courses I’ve taken, and my experience working directly with dietitians, I’ve picked up a few strategies that I can share. I 100% agree with the Division of Responsibility approach by Ellyn Satter. With this, parents decide what food to offer, where, and when (basically we set the schedule and plan the meals), and then kids decide which and how much of those foods to eat. With this philosophy, we are teaching kids to read their own cues, follow their hunger and fullness; we’re trusting them and they, in turn, are trusting us. At this point, three kids in, I like to look at eating and nutrition as a big picture approach. I don’t worry as much about the day to day. My kids may eat a beautiful, well-balanced homemade meal one day, but they may eat chicken nuggets and fries another. They may take two bites and be full, or they may eat three servings of their meal and still want more. I try not to focus on what exactly they each are putting in their mouths, but instead focus my energy on what I am providing. I work towards serving a balanced meal three times a day, and keeping a healthy mealtime routine (no tv, no phones, everyone sitting down at the table). Now, there may be days where we eat in the car, or have the TV on for breakfast, but when I look at the big picture, the majority of the time I am doing things as planned. I try to tell parents to let go of the little things (as much as they can)-- let go of what they cannot control (what kids actually put into their mouths)-- and focus energy and attention on what we can do as parents— provide healthy meals, keep a healthy routine, and be a good role model. For myself, this has not always been easy. It’s something I’ve had to work at, but the more I put it into practice, the more relaxed we all feel about eating, and the more successful my kids are.
VM: What are some common challenges parents face with their kids’ nutrition? Do these challenges vary based on kids’ ages?
CC: Challenges definitely vary with age. I think in the beginning, parents worry about what and how to feed their babies, making sure they are using the right method and offering the right foods, feeding them enough. The more recent growth of all social media information out there puts an added pressure on parents, which I know can be stressful. As kids move into the toddler years, they naturally begin to eat less and become more picky. They have a voice now, and they are realizing they can use their voice to tell their parents what they want and don’t want to eat. Parents struggle with how to respond when their toddlers say “no”, or when they throw food, or when they only eat two bites of a meal. Then as kids move into the school-age years, it’s more about how to serve balanced meals and how to deal with a child who has a limited diet.
VM: What are the most important things parents should be thinking about regarding their kids’ nutrition? Things to be sure to include? Avoid?
CC: For me, it’s all about balance. I tell parents to make sure they are serving all of the food groups, including fruit and vegetables with each meal (even if the child isn’t going to eat them), and serving water to drink with all meals. I’m not one to say “no sugar” or “no fast food” because I believe in teaching our kids moderation. I’m also not strict. I don’t believe in eliminating all sweets, or never eating fast food. I am very realistic and know I may have some days where we want to bake cookies or need to stop at a drive thru on our road trip. And that is okay. One of my favorite Dietitians is Edwena Kennedy from @mylittleeater. I love her FFP + P formula and I think it’s a great one for families to remember and use: when building meals and snacks, you should include Fat, Fiber, and Protein (and if there isn’t any on the plate, add Produce). With this combination, your child will feel full, get a variety of food groups, and get all the necessary macronutrients. She has tons of ideas on her page if you want some inspiration!
VM: What is your advice for parents of picky eaters?
CC: Focus on what you can control: what you serve, where you serve it, and when. Plan your meals, making one meal for the whole family, but adding at least one “safe food” that your picky eater is comfortable eating. This is something they will always eat. Add it to the table, even if it doesn’t go along with the rest of the meal. Serve the meal family style and allow your child to choose what to add to their plate. Model eating those same foods. Talk about the food in a neutral way (the color, the smell, texture, flavor, shape), but do not tell your child to eat it or put any pressure on them. Bring your child into the kitchen. Ask your child to help with washing and chopping fruits and veggies, setting the table and serving food, putting food away after the grocery store. Over time, and it may take a long time, you will see your child begin to grow.
VM: What are your thoughts about supplements?
CC: I think a supplement is a great way to get those extra nutrients in during times that we need them, and for kids who are still learning and growing their diet. They can help to take a little of the pressure off, and ensure your child is meeting their needs. I love them and use them with my kids on a daily basis!
VM: What are your thoughts on Vitaminis? How can parents think about a product like this?
CC: I love Vitaminis! I think parents can think of them as an added bonus for a child who eats a balanced diet, an extra boost in a time of need, or a back-up plan for a child who has a limited diet. If you have a child who loves juice or wants to have a special drink, this is a great way to make them happy, and make yourself happy too.