Sensory issues can reek havoc on a child’s eating habits and can be a major stressor for parents trying to feed their child a balanced diet. It can be hard to understand where your child’s irrational fears and objections are coming from if you’ve never suffered from sensory issues.
My goal here today is to demystify sensory issues related to eating, and put us on a path to empowering our children to eat the foods they once feared.
What’s it Like Having Sensory Issues?
Imagine that everything you feel, taste, hear, or otherwise perceive is experienced at a strength of 30-100x as intense as it really is. That slight itch from your shirt tag? It feels like it’s ripping through your skin. That slightly bitter aftertaste that accompanies brussel sprouts? It shoots a burning sensation straight up your nose and fills your mouth with an overpowering sensation, like getting your mouth washed out with soap.
Yes, there are children who are truly just picky eaters or are afraid of new foods, but sensory issues create their own unique set of problems, and need a unique set of tools to fix them.
How Can I Help My Child Overcome Their Sensory Issues?
Some children will never fully outgrow their sensory sensitivities, but for some, having a controlled environment and adequate attention paid to their sensory input can make a world of difference. Others need time for their hormones to sort themselves out.
There are tangible things that you can do to help your child, but keep in mind, your child may not ever be able to eat a piece of broccoli for as long a they are in your home.
- Focus on the big picture. Why do you want your child to eat that particular item or meal? Chances are that piece of broccoli (or whatever) symbolizes something to you, and is not really the battle you want to win. Are there other ways to still achieve your end goal without being so caught up on that piece of broccoli?
- Consider your child’s experience. Really root yourself in the possibility that, for your child, eating that piece of broccoli could be like eating a washcloth — with or without the soap. They are not over-exaggerating. Think of the last time you were hormonal — and imagine experiencing that all the time.
- Change it up. The onus is on you now to try new things to either get your child to try broccoli, or find another source for those vitamins. Try steamed with sauce, chopped up into soup, baked with spices or cheese, julienne into coleslaw (or “confetti”), raw with dip, or even pureed into a sauce.
- Relax. Remember that it can take several exposures for a child to be willing to try a new food item — without pressure. I try to serve food nonchalantly and deal with issues casually.
- Communicate clear expectations. This goes hand in hand with the previous point. My kids don’t have the eat everything on their plates, but they are expected to use clear communication tools and be respectful of the meal that I made. No calling things “yucky,” no throwing food on the ground or putting it on someone else’s plate without their permission, etc.
- Give your child freedom. For some children, the smell of certain foods will be overpowering and they will need them removed to avoid feeling nauseous. Others, they just need to know that they can choose to try or not try something and that will be fine. Giving your child the freedom to say no empowers them, but also allows you to engage in productive conversations. When I ask my kids why they don’t want to eat something, they know it’s actually a conversation and that their choice will be respected, and often that conversation leads to them trying the dish. By removing the power struggle, my kids don’t get wrapped up in protests or emotional melt-downs; we bypass that and get straight to either solving the issue or moving on.
- Change up the favourites. Try presenting your child’s favourite options in different ways to encourage them to be accepting of diversity in their meals. I know it might sound scary to alter “the sure thing” on the menu and risk them rejecting it, but changing the colour, shape, smell, texture, and eventually, the taste of their favourites is a path to success.
- Slowly introduce new things. Only introduce one new or objectionable food item per meal, don’t make it unavoidable or the full dish. I find that being honest and separating out the broccoli from a stew is more likely to result in the whole dish being eaten than if I was to try to mix the broccoli in with everything else. Or, if you’ve had success with purees, try to slowly make the purees less smooth and more textured.
- Have rituals. Mealtime, and even snacktime, rituals can help ease children who find mealtimes stressful. Letting them set the table, or use the same special cup, or having a special “I love you” or gratitude ritual at the beginning of the meal can help normalize a difficult experience for sensory overloaded children. We have found success with lunchbox days and colour co-ordinating our eating utensils with our plates.
- Have a plan or system. As much as I dislike most charts, for a sensory sensitive child, a chart of what foods they will eat in a day or a week can be helpful. When I meal plan, I try to include the children and they get to see at least one of their choices on the week’s menu, which can make the other foods seem less upsetting.
And, of course, the main purpose of this website — Get them involved IN THE KIDS’ KITCHEN! Have them explore and make their own snacks and meals, allow them to have a say in the formation of the food that is going on their plate, and many children will be so proud to eat their creations, all objections will be out the window.
I hope you were able to get some practical ideas from this list of eleven tips to help your sensory-sensitive child (aka, the picky eater) be more adventurous in their eating helpful. If you have a tip that you’d like to add, or a concern/question with one of the tips shared here, please comment below or connect with me on my Facebook page.
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