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Guest Interview - Lisa Zaharioudakis, Creator of One Step Up

Updated: Jun 19

Meet Lisa Zaharioudakis, Special Educator, Behavior Analyst, and creator of One Step Up.

After working with hundreds of families and neurodiverse children, she recognized a pattern: mealtimes were stressful! So she set about gamifying that stress into a fun way to teach children how to try new foods: One Step Up.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for One Step Up Game?

A: I came up with the idea while working with a 6-year old who at the time was eating a limited variety of foods. He loved playing board games with the therapist during his ABA sessions. He also loved playing with his older brother. I saw an opportunity to teach a new skill (eating new foods) in a fun game environment rather than more of a discrete trial teaching format. I created a prototype of the game and play-tested it with this learner and his older brother. He had so much fun playing the game, was motivated by the competition to beat his brother, and ended up trying new foods within the first time playing the game! I saw in that moment how we could make food fun again for kids and take the stress out of mealtimes for parents.

Q: What issues did you observe around mealtimes with students as a special education teacher & BCBA?

A: I saw how stressful mealtimes could be for families. Some of the kids I worked with were only eating a few foods, and eating those same foods day after day. The families expressed concern about the limited variety of foods and wanted to introduce new foods to their kids, but oftentimes mealtimes were already stressful enough and therefore, it was not an ideal environment to teach trying new foods.

Q: How has your training as a special education teacher & BCBA help you support your students during mealtimes? What strategies did you try?

A: In addition to practicing as a BCBA and being a former special education teacher, I am also a certified holistic health coach (from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition/IIN). I've combined my training in these areas with my experience as a BCBA to embed shaping, differential reinforcement, and choice into the skill of eating new foods. Eating new foods is a skill just like imitating motor actions or identifying objects, and so implementing the principles of ABA has been really effective.

Q: Who is the One Step Up Game for?

A: The game is a great fit for most kids ages 3 and older with some experience playing simple turn-taking board games, while being able to attend to a game or activity for at least 10 minutes. It is recommended to play the game outside of mealtimes. Players must also be able to follow one-step directions, imitate simple actions and have a receptive vocabulary of at least 50 words. There are many modifications families, therapists, BCBAs and teachers can make to the game. You can shorten the game playing time, use just the green colored cards (green colored cards are easier questions and red colored cards are more advanced questions), add dips and sauces into the game that the kids can dip the food into, add a reinforcer for the winner of the game (or all players), an adult can read the question card to the learner and prompt their response, and you can modify which foods you select to put in the 4 food containers. I recommend starting with at least 2-3 preferred/love it foods and 1 new food. The 1 new food could be very similar to a food the learner already eats. For example, if the learner loves Ritz crackers, maybe you add a new type of cracker as one of the 4 food containers.

Q: Why is it important for parents to get a head start on selective eating?

A: Consistency is really helpful in supporting kids in getting comfortable with trying new foods. It can take up to 25 exposures to a food before a kid is comfortable eating it or decides if they like it.

Q: Why is it important for parents to get a head start on selective eating?

Playing One Step Up - The Food Adventure Game provides many, many opportunities for kids to be exposed to new foods and have the option of how they want to experience the food without any pressure to eat it. The more practice they have touching and exploring the food, the more comfortable they will feel to ultimately one day take a bite of it.

Q: What tips do you have for parents to make mealtimes more relaxed at home?

A: Here's a few examples:

  • Keep it as fun and relaxed as possible, which can be hard to do when mealtimes feel really stressful.

  • Change up the presentation of the food (cut the food different, put the food in a muffin tin, use toothpicks to pick up the food, use different silverware or other utensils to pick up the food).

  • Change your language - instead of placing demands ("take two more bites" or "finish your blueberries before you get up from the table") - make comments about the food, ask questions about the food ("is your cracker crunchy or soft?" or "that pepper is yellow just like the sun!").

  • Serve small serving sizes of food - just one or two pieces of each food. This feels visually less overwhelming for the child and they can always ask for more when they're ready!

  • Include your child in the grocery shopping and cooking experiences. The more exposure they have the better. Eating is a sensory experience, and being able to touch the food when you pick it out at the grocery store, and then touch it when you cut it up, smell it when it starts cooking in the pan, etc. really helps kids feel more comfortable with new foods.

Q: What has been the response from students and families who have played your One Step Up Game?

A: One of my favorite response was from a mom of a 7-year old who told me that her child ate pizza for the first time while playing the game and this was a big deal in her family. She was so proud of her daughter. Another family told me that their 4-year old asks to play the game every morning when she wakes up. Knowing that trying new foods can be fun and playful, and that it can take some stress out of mealtimes for parents, is what it is all about in my opinion.

Thank you so much for your time, Lisa!

Interested in bringing One Step Up to your dinner table? You can find it here in the Ally ABA Consulting Toy Shop! Follow Lisa and One Step Up on Instagram here.


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