Picky eating can be a real battle between parents and young children, and this is Jessica Mancinik’s area of expertise.
Jessica attended the University of Central Florida in Orlando, where she earned her undergraduate degree in communication sciences and disorders. She went on to earn her master’s degree in speech language pathology and became an American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) certified speech language pathologist.
During her last semester of graduate school, Jessica completed her clinical fellowship by shadowing an inpatient speech pathologist at a children’s hospital, where she realized that this job truly was her calling.
From there, she got a job at a children’s hospital in Colorado, where she trained to be a behavioral feeding specialist and helped kids who were extremely picky eaters.
There is a spectrum of picky eating, and Jessica has worked with those who are slightly nervous about new foods and those who “would not even allow a lima bean on their plate,” she says.
Many speech pathologists work with a variety of patients who have difficulties speaking for various reasons, including speech impairments, traumatic brain injuries and disabilities. There are a lot of niches in the realm of speech therapy, and this includes Jessica’s specialty: behavioral feeding therapy.
There are people who struggle with dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, especially within the elderly population. Dysphagia also affects children, and Jessica works with children who have been admitted to her hospital with these swallowing difficulties. Some have traumatic brain injuries and are undergoing surgery, intubation and other feeding difficulties.
Jessica currently works at Duke Children’s Hospital in Durham, North Carolina, as an inpatient feeding specialist treating children with dysphagia and other feeding difficulties. It is Jessica’s job to treat these children, teach them how to swallow safely and prevent food from entering their airways. She teaches parents how to support their children and help them to eat safely.
Jessica’s past experience as a picky eating specialist in Colorado inspired her to create her own online brand, Hangry Helper. Within the past two years, Jessica has grown an online community where she shares tools for parents to help their children with eating.
She posts videos and educational content for parents to help kids who may be picky eaters or those who are cautious about trying new foods.
On July 31, Jessica launched an online picky eating course on the Hangry Helper website for parents, which she is ecstatic about. She hopes to launch an additional course in the near future for other speech language pathologists who are looking to specialize in feeding therapy like her.
Hangry Helper started when Jessica began posting videos on TikTok and Instagram, sharing tips for parents about how to introduce unfamiliar foods to their children and how to engage a child’s interests during meals. She has built a large following of 93,500 on TikTok and 4,300 followers on her Instagram page.
She also has a newsletter that she sends out every Thursday, which targets a new food, technique or therapeutic strategy each week.
Jessica’s 4-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter are often the stars of her videos as she demonstrates feeding therapy strategies to show parents. She says her son is an adventurous eater, but having him in the videos shows parents how to use the specific strategies and how they work rather than just providing a list of things to do. The videos of her son engage her viewers in a more effective way.
People on the internet can be cruel, and sometimes Jessica receives rude comments on her videos.
“People forget that content creators are humans too,” she says.
However, she has learned to block these comments and not give them the time of day.
Jessica feels most accomplished when she receives messages from her patients’ families as well as from people online about the progress they are making with their children.
“The best part is when I get a text from a parent or they tell me, ‘You would not believe what [my child] ate for breakfast!’” Jessica says. “They are just bursting with joy about this thing that’s kind of hard to understand if you’re not living it.”
Feeding difficulties and picky eating can be a huge struggle for parents, and Jessica strives to be a helpful, trustworthy source of information for all parents. Knowing that she is changing these families’ lives is important for Jessica.
As a mom herself, it is often a challenge for Jessica to shift between her “therapy brain” and her “mom brain,” as she describes it, with her children.
“It can be hard to turn off the ‘mom brain’ that says, ‘Please just eat your food that I spent time cooking,’” Jessica says. “But I have to take a step back and use my ‘therapy brain’ and say, ‘You are just having a hard time with this food,’ and treat it like a therapy session.”
Her son has even picked up on some of her strategies and uses them himself. They recently went grocery shopping and her son told her, “Mom, I think some people might be nervous to try this food, so I want to help you show people how to learn about this food when we get home.”
It can also be a challenge for Jessica when she has to be away from her kids while she focuses on her work. Sometimes guilt creeps in when she is not able to devote all of her time and attention to her kids, but she says she is lucky to have an amazing support system to help her. She realizes that she is allowed to do other things outside of motherhood.
“[Motherhood] changes you in a way that’s so hard to comprehend,” Jessica says. “It humbles you so much. You see the way that you speak, your actions and who you are mirrored back at you. It makes you want to be a better person so that your kids will be kind, accepting and gracious humans.”
Jessica has two main pieces of advice for mothers: first, take lots of photos and videos of your kids, as they are always growing and changing, and second, Jessica says that “however you are feeling as a mom, there is someone else feeling the same way as you.”
“Something that keeps me going is 100% my kids and my husband,” Jessica says. “Having Hangry Helper as a business has been amazing for my mental health. Having something outside of being a mom and having a creative outlet to be helpful to other people keeps me going.”
To Jessica, “she can be both” is “a freeing idea of doing however many things you want and still be just as good in each one of those things, unapologetically.”