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Food and Sensory Processing Disorder

Getting a child to eat a well rounded diet can be difficult and if there is an additional sensory component, it can be down right challenging.

A child with sensory processing disorder that struggles with food usually presents as a texture preference and/or avoidance. They may prefer or avoid sticky, crunchy, slimy, chewy, mealy, etc. So what can you as a parent or caregiver do to work on this?

Do a sensory activity diet

Firstly, it is important to perform a daily sensory diet. Yes, this includes doing the vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile activities that Sensory Sid Activity Cards coach you through. Even though these activities seem unrelated to what your child puts in their mouth, they are targeting the entire sensory processing system and teaching it to run more efficiently. With time, it will help.

Try doing your sensory diet before meals. This may help to get them in an organized state to give them the best chance possible for mealtime. If doing the whole sensory diet isn’t possible, try picking one or two activities that are calming for your child. Skin brushing and joint compressions are great for this.

There are some sensory strategies that are specifically targeted to eating. One activity that you can do is to provide sensory input to the mouth prior to eating. In the clinic we use a small vibrator designed for the mouth. At home you can use a vibrating toothbrush and gently brush (or run the backside of the toothbrush on) the tongue, lips and the inside and outsides of the cheeks. A textured washcloth may work in the same way if wiped on the outside of the cheeks and lips. This may help desensitize the mouth and improve a child’s tolerance to less desirable textures.

Just seeing certain foods can create anxiety for some kids. If this is the case, try gently exposing them to that food (or similar foods) in non-eating ways and settings. Can’t stand beans or rice? Try a sensory bin with dried beans or rice. Maybe add some water later. Hates fruits and vegetables? Try building food “art”, using broccoli heads to paint or making stamps with apples or oranges cut in half. Cherry tomatoes cut in half make an adorable lady bug. Make a bunny using cut pieces of hard boiled egg. Try Pinterest “food art for kids” and I guarantee you and your kids won’t be disappointed.

Get your child involved with food

Involve your child in food preparation. They often become invested in the food that they helped make and are more willing to try it. Remember that even being around food that they are not required to eat can make them more likely to try it in the future.1

Take your child with you to the grocery store and give them choices. I always start in the grocery store in the fruit and vegetable section and ask my child to pick out what she would like to eat that week. She usually retrieves some healthy, well-liked items. Sometimes she surprises me and brings back something unusual- a dragon fruit, lychee, basil, or romanesco broccoli (a beautiful spiral cruciferous vegetable). Often these items are brought home, tasted and rejected, but sometimes we find something new that she likes. If not, I do not worry, because each time that she has tried something new, we are strengthening the association of trying something new and a positive experience. 

My personal food guidelines

I personally take the stance that a child is in control of what goes in their mouth. I never force or try to trick a bite in to a child’s mouth. Having said this, as a parent or caregiver you still have the ability to influence what a child eats. 

An example of this is saying “you need to eat two of your vegetables if you want to have dessert (or more Mac and cheese)”. If they really don’t want to eat the vegetables, they don’t have to-they are simply opting out of something preferred as well. This should be done with a little caution as well. Make sure that they have some tolerated healthy choices on every plate. Meeting the child where they are at is important.

I don’t make a child finish their plate (unless it is something they served themself) but I warn them that there will not be another food opportunity for awhile. And stick to it! Food is a very sensitive topic and forcing certain rules can have longstanding unwanted impacts. These are also not hard and fast rules. There are so many different ways to handle food well.

Try something new

There are some steps that can be taken to encourage kids to try new foods. These are some of my favorites:

Put it on the plate. Even this can be a struggle for a sensory child. Having a food on their plate even if they don’t eat it helps normalize the food. I often serve something and tell the child “you do not have to eat this, but it is going to sit on your plate”. A sensory child may benefit from divided plates, as again this gives them control of what goes where, touches what, and different textures kept to themselves.

Dips! Dips are the secret sauce to life. Many children love at least one kind of dip, and you can often introduce many things as “dip transporters” (but make sure they take a bite of the dip carrier!) Try lots of different kinds of dip: mustard, ketchup, ranch, hummus, guacamole, bean dip, nut butters.

Squirrel bites. Give your child a way out, and show them the polite way. For new foods that a child is reluctant to try, I ask them to take “a squirrel bite”. I am still amazed at the few molecules a child is able to reduce a bite to, but this encourages them to try something and still have a little control themselves. I also have prepared a polite exit for them; meaning, if they do not like the food they are allowed to politely cover their mouth with a napkin, spit it out and throw it away. I discourage nasty faces.

Meal times can be such a struggle for families with Sensory Processing Disorder. Good for you for reading up on this! You are on the right path. Learning new tips and tricks is what parenting is all about. Just like you are encouraging your child to try something new, you are equipping yourself with new tools for your tool bag.

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