Repost: Food is not a four-letter word. Help for picky eaters!

picky_eaterMy son has Sensory Processing Disorder (also known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction). One aspect of the vast range of symptoms of the disorder is that he is a very picky eater. He doesn’t want to try new foods, he doesn’t like his foods mixed together (which means he can’t appreciate my casseroles, soups, and salads), and he doesn’t even want to eat a food that has touched another on his plate. I knew he was sensitive to the textures and smells of foods because of his oral and olfactory sensitivities. But it took some research to figure out that there is much more to it than just that.

He’s thinner than I’d like, especially after a growth spurt, but we’re thankful that so far this problem hasn’t restricted his growth or health. Mostly, it’s just very annoying to me as a parent. I work hard to cook a healthy, tasty meal for the family, and pat myself on the back for not buying fast food or overly processed/frozen items, but it seems his first response is always, “Mom, this is yucky. Can I have a PB&J?” It’s hard to shake the feelings of under appreciation and worry about his health and remember that it’s really about his neurological disorder.

Over the years, we’ve tried to choose our battles, and until lately food hasn’t been one of them. I’d always tried to convince myself that when he was hungry, he would eat, and as long as I was giving him a quality daily multivitamin and healthy food choices, he’d be just fine. That’s still theoretically true for my son now, but for many children with more severe aversions, those labeled Resistant Eaters, this issue can present serious health concerns. It is not uncommon that children diagnosed with other disorders including Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorders would also be Resistant Eaters.

For my family, the social aspect has also come in to play recently. When we have dinner at a friend’s house, I’m embarrassed and apologetic when he turns his nose up at the food everyone else is eating. Plus, my husband and I have tired of preparing a separate meal for him each night.

When I look to the future, I’d like my son to be gradually more open to a larger variety of foods, including those mixed together. It’s also important to me that he be exposed to a wider variety of vitamins and nutrients. Ideally, he would also learn to appreciate the scrumptious expanse of foods available to him so he can enjoy all that the world has to offer. What is life without thai food, stinky cheese, or pomegranate? Lately I’ve been feeling like that the longer I let this slide, the harder it will be to change his habits.

So I finally did a little research to see if there was anything I could do as a parent to expand his palate. For more details and strategies on how to get your munchkin to eat, check out Just Take a Bite: Easy, Effective Answers to Food Aversions and Eating Challenges! or Finicky Eaters: What to Do When Kids Won’t Eat, both by Dr. Lori Ernsperger and Tania Stegen-Hanson or Food Chaining: The Proven 6-Step Plan to Stop Picky Eating, Solve Feeding Problems, and Expand Your Child’s Diet by Cheri Fraker, Dr. Mark Fishbein, Sibyl Cox, and Laura Walbert.

Here is a brief list of what the experts recommended.

  1. Understand. Be sure you understand why you have a picky eater. Is it due to delayed oral-motor development (resulting in problems coordinating sucking, swallowing, chewing, and breathing)? Sensory processing issues that affect food are wide ranging. Propioceptive difficulties can affect how the child holds utensils or how they hold their body at the table. Vestibular problems distract the child who is focused on movement in their chair instead of eating. Tactile sensitivity may cause children to avoid foods that are messy to the touch or that have a specific texture. In combination with sensitivities to taste, smell, visual, and auditory inputs, some children may have a number of clear reasons why they aren’t eating. Saying they are picky just doesn’t cover it. Other disorders that can affect eating include impaired respiration, anxiety, and rigid behaviors. The fact that my son’s food could not touch other food is a form of rigidity. His anxiety often keeps him from trying new foods. Understanding the true cause of this problem will help me remain patient and be sure I’m using the approach that’s right for my child. Check with your physician and/or occupational therapist for help understanding your child.
  2. Build a Team. In addition to your physician and any existing therapists, enlist the help of spouses, relatives, teachers, and anyone else close to the child. If your child receives a consistent approach and message when encountering foods, you’ll have a better chance of success.
  3. Determine your individual goals. Professionals recommend you write down your goals for improvement. Goals might include establishing a consistent eating schedule, reducing crying at the table, or introducing one new food each week. There are a wide range of possibilities, but writing down those specific to your child and family will help you focus your efforts.
  4. Make a Plan. Your plan should consider:
    •  creating a meal/snack schedule.
    • choosing appropriate portion sizes (1 tablespoon of each food per year of child’s age) so they’re not overwhelmed.
    • creating a positive mealtime setting by controlling the environment (seating, reducing distractions, modeling positive eating behavior, and avoid negative interactions or discussing food issues during the meal).
    • selecting foods that are healthy and taste good. Begin with foods that are easy to chew and swallow, without strong odors, and progress gradually toward more exotic foods. Be sure to include a small portion of at least one food that you know your child will eat, such as bread or rolls, so they can experience success at each meal.
    • establishing a routine for transitioning to the table, such as hand washing, setting the table, etc. Including the child in the process prepares them for the meal mentally and physically.
    • pre-planning your approach to discipline. Agree and communicate that tantruming children must leave the table and cannot return until the following meal. Children who throw food must clean it up. Clear and consistent is the way to go.
    • your preconceived or cultural beliefs about food. Did you grow up in the “clean your plate club” like I did? Are your expectations too high or getting in the way?
    • Be Patient. Change takes time. Tackle one or two of your goals from step 3 at a time. Trying to fix them all at once and expecting immediate success might feel overwhelming and make you feel like giving up.  If you skip a day or break from your plan, go right back to it.
    • Make it Fun. Talk to your child about the food you are eating. Where does it come from? What are its ethnic origins? What is the best way to eat the food? Try unusual approaches, such as eating olives off fingertips, making food into shapes or animals, sipping applesauce through a straw, or dipping new foods in something the child already likes such as ketchup, salad dressing, or hummus. Approach this issue with your own creativity.

Food issues for children with disabilities are too complex to address fully here. But if we approach it with planning, patience, consistency, and support for each other, we’ll all have a greater chance of improvement. Share your food-based issues here because most of us have been there, regardless of our children’s diagnosis. And hang in there.

Photo by Dabasir on Flickr.

Lorraine Wilde is a freelance journalist, environmental scientist, and mom to twin 7-year old boys. She also blogs at My Wilde World and has published articles in Ithaca Child, Entertainment News NW, and the parenting website

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