Trying to feed kids these days in complicated.
So many rules!
Eat lots of fruit. Sugar makes kids wild. Drink milk for calcium. Dairy is the devil. Eat whole grains. Avoid gluten like the plague. Eggs are good, eggs are bad. Fats are bad. Fats are good.
You get my point.
Even when you settle on your personal nutrition convictions, there’s the LONG bridge from theory to the reality of what your kids will actually eat.
That becomes 57 times hard if your child struggles with certain aspects of sensory processing disorder.
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I’m convinced that one of the toughest possible symptoms of SPD, is oral aversion. This is picky eating on steroids.
But why do some sensory kids struggle in this area?
Many possible reasons.
- Tactile: For some kids, certain textures are viewed as a legitimate threat by their brain. This carries over into food texture preferences.
- Olfactory: The sense of smell is EXTREMELY important to the eating experience. If a child is extra sensitive to smells, they might not be able to stand be in the same room as dinner, nonetheless sitting at the table consuming it. (Remember that first trimester of pregnancy and have some mercy on your child.)
- Oral: The mouth is FULL of sensory receptors and so there tons of ways for things to go awry. Mechanical issues like swallowing can also be a factor.
Please see medical professionals for all sensory needs, especially related to nutrition because of the vital importance it plays in your child’s health. This posts are from one mom to another to help you get ideas and conversations started with your care providers.
Tips and Tricks
I’ve been noticing my boys have started a downward spiral in their eating habits, become more and more rigid and whiny. My friend suggested I read It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating by Dina Rose.
While it’s not geared toward sensory kids, I still found some great gems in their. It’s also laid out in crazy mini steps so that you aren’t causing major upheaval in your child’s life.
The theme throughout the book is that by focusing on nutrition, most parents have become short sighted, desperate, and too pushy during individual meal times.
We’re focused on how many calories, how many veggies, which vitamins did they get at this specific meal, while mostly ignoring healthy habits.
If we instead focus on instilling in our kids the habits of variety, proportions, and moderation, they will end up having far better nutrition, than if we sneak zucchini into their pancakes.
Turn Your Child Into a Critic
One of the suggestions that has been working fabulously well for us, is to invite your child to be a food critic. When they’re trying something new, remove the pressure by asking for their honest opinions. they’re even allowed to spit it out! I can’t believe what my kids have been willing to try once I’ve convinced them that they won’t get in trouble for spitting it out.
Another rule is that when they describe it, they can’t use words like “bad” but have to use more sensory like descriptions. “It’s crunchy.” “It’s sour.” Then keep trying things over the course of a couple weeks. Studies find that it can take kids up to 14 tries to go from disliking to actually enjoying a food!
Let Them Play
You can significantly help your child by encouraging them to play with their food. Let their hands explore the food. A tactile avoider will find this far more “safe” and comfortable.
This activity should be happening both during meals and at exclusive play times when there’s no pressure to actually eat.
Get involved with your kids. Use sensory bins filled with different food and let things get messy.
Variety Isn’t As Varied as You Think
Many sensory parents lament the lack of variety in their child’s diet. I’ve heard from some that their child literally can only stomach 6 different foods. PERIOD.
That’s obviously a problem, especially because that number has been descending!
In the book, It’s Not About the Broccoli they suggested to parents of neurotypical kids that they should strive to add variety. But the rule actually seemed quite obtainable. No same food can be eaten two days in a row.
Here’s an example. Child only eats waffles or oatmeal for breakfast? Just don’t eat the same thing back to back! You can build variety from there. Or maybe your situation is more dire. Let’s say your kid ONLY eats oatmeal. One morning can be oatmeal with cinnamon, the next morning oatmeal with brown sugar.
Seems crazy, but the idea is to get kids bumped ever so slightly out of their food rut, and you build greater and greater variety from there.
TV Dinner Anyone?
Normally, eating while being distracted with movies or reading is a bad idea for your waistline, but for a child with sensory differences, the diversion can make the process bearable.
If smells are the biggest issue, consider masking those strong smells with something more “calm” like vanilla essential oils. Follow your child’s lead on this one.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to help your child in this area. The old saying that kids will eat what you serve them if they’re hungry enough just. isn’t. true.
Discuss these issues with your doctor or occupational therapist, not just for your sanity, but for your child’s long term health.
One of the BEST resources I’ve found for sensory related food aversions is Mealtime Works by Alisha Grogan who is a pediatric OT and a mom who totally gets the real life struggle! It’s incredible. Check it out HERE.