Raising a Picky Eater
I knew something more was going on with my child when I watched him eat – or not eat. He hesitated every time, scanned his foods as if he was searching for a microscopic explosive device, and most often refused to eat unless it was one of 3 foods – bread, peanut butter, or apple sauce. Yep – most people sized him up pretty quickly as a “picky eater”, but I wasn’t a first timer parent, indulging every palette whim of my child in order to please him and get him to eat. I also noticed other issues that made me search further and lead me to some valuable insight. My child was dealing with sensory processing issues, and for him eating was one area where this manifested (something I now know is referred to as oral defensiveness).
How do I know if my child has sensory processing issues or is just a picky eater?
Sensory processing issues affect children’s eating habits in interesting ways. They might be drawn to or reject foods based on sight, smells, or textures. If there are truly sensory issues these will be consistent for meals and snacks – no matter what foods are served. I had heard so many times – when he gets hungry enough he’ll eat it. What I soon found out, however, is that he just was not going to eat it if the texture was unexpected or crunchy – not even candy or cookies. Yes – that means that my chocolate loving son turned down M&M cookies because of the crunch from those tiny candy coated shells. These kinds of tendencies might be the signs that your child is more than picky and could be dealing with oral defensiveness.
How do I help my child with oral defensiveness?
Understand the difference between flavor and texture. It can take 10 tries before your child really knows if his or her taste buds accept the new food based on flavor. But if your child has sensory issues, the texture of the food can be more important than the taste. For my child it was anything crunchy that he avoided like his life depended on it. I got creative with ways to serve healthy foods in textures that were comfortable for him.
Keep providing healthy choices – maybe just in new ways. I knew my son was not going to thrive on PB&J and applesauce. I also knew that so many healthy choices come with a “crunch” – like fresh fruits and veggies. In order to compromise I added cooked fruits and veggies to recipes he already liked (which were very limited and usually resulted in crazy inventions of homemade “jelly”), making sure they were small in size and matched the texture of the other food. French toast got soft apples cooked into the coating, muffins were great for bananas (and easy to add things like wheat germ), and I could puree other fruits and veggies to similar consistencies as apple sauce.
Offer one new food in small portions. If your child is extremely agitated by new foods, try the same new food several times in a week instead of a different new food at each meal in your desperate search for something else to serve that he might finally like. I wanted to help my son learn to accept foods beyond his comfort zone without extreme pressure. Some people refer to it as a “No Thank You” portion, but I just always said it was a tad to try – just a bit that would introduce the food.
Keep your child distracted. This might be far from typical parenting advice you hear about mealtimes, but distractions for kids with oral defensiveness can help get them over their hyper-focus hurdles.
- Keep a steady conversation flowing about a topic you know your child likes.
- Offer different types of utensils – my son loves straws, toot picks, and plastic spears.
- Use things like weighted blankets or other sensory items to comfort your child during meal time.
Balance nutrition and sanity. Obviously we feed our kids so they receive nutrition to help them grow and flourish, and when they reject almost any food that will help get them there it can be stressful. Choose your food battles carefully.
- Talk with your pediatrician about vitamins and supplements.
- Use a blender or other tool to provide nutritious foods in the texture and form your child needs.
- Allow for a little leeway. I would serve one favorite to my son in a very small portion (so that he couldn’t fill up on it) and then still offer the main meal in small portions.
- Let your child play with his food. Let him explore it as it runs through his fingers, as he squishes it, and maybe molds it between his tiny palms. While I first cringed at this, I soon found that letting his other senses explore the food first helped his oral senses not be on overload.
So I still have a darling boy who is more sensitive to tactile, auditory, or oral stimuli. However, his favorite veggies are now carrots and broccoli – raw and crunchy – and he reaches for a PB&J less than once a week. Hooray for small steps and patience!