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Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and Picky Eaters

Food is a time where families and friends come together, talk about their days and celebrate life’s events. Children with sensory processing disorder (SPD) are often picky eaters which can change mealtime from a joyous occasion to a stressful event. In this blog, we’ll cover some sensory tips for picky eaters. 

The sensory input of food

Before exploring strategies we need to understand the sensory experience of food. 

Food has its own sensory input. The temperature, texture, firmness, softness, flavor, look and smell all provide specific input to our senses. 

Here’s an example of how different foods provide different inputs. Let’s consider the difference in how a spoonful of oatmeal feels in your mouth versus a dill pickle. 

The oatmeal is soft, bland, and warm. The pickle is crunchy, strongly flavored (salty and vinegary), and cold. Overall the oatmeal gives less input compared to the dill pickle. 

You ‘feel’ the dill pickle more in your mouth than you do the oatmeal. Makes sense right?

So a child that is hypersensitive may struggle with food that provides more input. They may not like strongly flavored, crunchy, or chewy food.

On the other hand, a child that is hyposensitive to input may need and prefer foods that have a stronger sensory response, more flavor, firmness, crunch, or chewiness.

Read more about hypersensitive vs hyposensitive here.

Understanding the input that food can provide is an important part of understanding what your child may like or dislike, sensory-wise, about certain foods. Knowing this will help later when we discuss strategies to introduce new foods. 

Picky preferences

Often when we start to explore the foods children do and don’t eat there becomes a theme or commonality about the sensory experience of those foods. They may only eat crunchy food, or strongly flavored food, or want food that is chewy. They may avoid soft, mushy, or bland food. Another child may be the opposite, but often you discover something in common with the foods they like and dislike.

At times these preferences in food match the child’s other sensory needs or preferences. For example, a seeker who is always on the move, plays rough, does well with heavy work and pressure, may like to eat crunchy, chewy, strongly flavored foods. Or in other words, food that gives more input to their mouth and sensory system. 

An avoider, someone who doesn’t like as much input from movement, touch, or loud noises for example. May prefer bland or soft food, or food that doesn’t give as much input to the mouth or senses. 

Strategies for picky eaters

Now that we understand the food sensory experience better, let’s talk about one way to help expand the diet of a child that struggles with sensory processing. 

At times children will be so strong in their preferences that they cannot even look at or engage with the food they don’t like, let alone put it in their mouth. In these cases, we need to help that child desensitize slowly to the food, and let it become a safe, comfortable part of mealtime. 

In the technique described below, you will take it one step at a time, moving on to the next only when the child has become comfortable with the one before. I like to encourage a no-pressure, nonchalant way of going about it. For example, if the child gets upset with the food presentation in one step just say “that’s okay, you can move it over here, or place it in this bowl if you don’t want it.” 

Don’t force or trick a child to eat a specific food. Food and mealtime should be a fun, pleasurable experience, helping to promote that environment will allow your child to be more open to some change. 

Let’s dive into how to present the non-preferred food, the food you are wanting to introduce that your child has struggled with. This may be a specific food or a variety of foods that have a common sensory input such as softer foods. 

First, depending on how difficult the food is for your child, you may start with just having this food in the house, in the fridge, or on the counter. 

Next move the food to the table at mealtime, in its own container. 

When that becomes comfortable for your child, present the food in a small bowl next to everyone’s plate. I like to encourage the whole family to do this as to not signal the child out. They don’t need to try the food or engage with it, and if they need to move it away they can. 

Once that becomes okay for your child, place that small bowl on their plate. The same rules apply about trying, engaging, and moving the food away if needed. And again do the same for everyone at the table. 

In time this will progress to your child tolerating the food being placed directly on their plate. 

The goal is to have your child engage with the food, have it become comfortable to them and eventually touch it, smell it, taste it, or eat it!

Remember this is a slow, step-by-step process, you may stay at one stage for several days or weeks before your child has become comfortable enough for you to move to the next step. 

Ready to branch out a bit more?

What about the picky eaters who have strong food preferences but are ready for a bit more. 

Use preferred foods to introduce and explore non-preferred foods. Here are a few examples:

  • Preferred food is crunchy, and non-preferred food is soft. Start with a bowl of granola and a small spoonful of yogurt stirred in, almost a non-detectable amount. Gradually change this ratio as your child gets more used to it.
  • Preferred food is a dip, such as ranch, non-preferred food is vegetables such as carrots. Use the carrot as a ‘spoon’ to eat the ranch. The child will be holding, smelling, and even starting to taste the carrot. Don’t pressure them to eat the carrot, just start with interacting. 
  • Preferred food is a chip, cracker etc., non-preferred food is a softer texture like a sauce or spread. Use the chip, cracker, graham cracker to dip into other textures/foods such as yogurt, apple sauce, pudding, nut butter, or hummus. 
  • Preferred food is peanut butter (or other nut butter), non-preferred food is fruit or vegetables. Use an apple slice or piece of celery to dip in and eat the peanut butter.

These are just a few examples of how to combine preferred and non-preferred foods. 

Get creative with this. At times a combination you may not find enjoyable might be something that helps your child engage with challenging food. 

Concept of food chaining

As we discussed already sensory kids that are picky eaters will often only eat a certain texture or flavor of food. At times this can get so specific to only eating certain brands or food that looks a certain way.

We want to help expand a child’s diet from only eating one brand and style of cracker, for example, to eating many different crakers. From only eating chicken nuggets, to eating chicken. To do this we can use the concept of food chaining. 

The idea is to build gradually and slowly off of what your child does eat. To do this slowly change one characteristic about the food. 

If they only eat one brand of cracker, can you find another brand that is of the same shape and color but maybe just a bit smaller? Or if they only eat chicken nuggets can you cut them into different shapes?

At times just changing the shape of the food is enough for a child to have difficulties eating it. Kids want to know what to expect, if the food looks different this may present a challenge for them. The goal is the help them understand that the chicken nugget is a chicken nugget whether it is whole, cut in strips, or a circle. 

You may also do this with color. Perhaps your child only eats yellow corn chips, maybe mix a few of the white and blue style chips into the bowl. Buy different brands that are just slightly different in color. 

It may take multiple times (more than you want) for your child to get comfortable with these subtle changes. But we want to help gradually break down the barriers children have with differences in food and help them to have a more enjoyable food experience and improved diet!

Why are fruits and veggies so hard?

Fruits and vegetables can be more difficult to introduce than packaged food. This is because they look different. A slice of an apple never looks, smells, or tastes the same. The color, shape, smell, and flavor can change depending on how it is cut, the variety, how ripe it is, etc.. 

But a cracker out of a box, well it looks the same

Every. Single. Time. 

This is one reason progressing your child’s diet with fruits and vegetables can be more challenging. Even if it is the same type of apple they ate the day before, it looks different so they don’t know what to expect and that may throw them off. 

It takes time

Introducing and learning to experience new foods will take time, don’t rush it. Be patient, have a plan, and stay with it. 

It may take multiple times of a child seeing or engaging with a particular food prior for them to be ready for the next step of touching, smelling, or tasting. Each child will progress at their own pace, and that’s okay! 

You want to help your child learn that an apple is an apple no matter how you cut it. 

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