When it comes to picky eaters, often there are negative associations with it. However, there might actually be a deeper, underlying sensory problem or sensitivity occurring, known as sensory food aversion.
Have you ever wondered if your child’s “picky” eating behaviors might be a sign of sensory food aversion? A food aversion is when a child refuses certain foods that are presented to him or her, despite being developmentally ready for them.
In this article we are joined by guest blogger Nicole of Toddler and Mom, to educate us on what exactly a sensory food aversion is.
What is Sensory Food Aversion?
Sensory food aversion is a sensory overreaction (or sensory aversion) to a certain type of food and is often described with young children as picky eaters.
Essentially, it is when a specific food creates an increased sensory input, which can make for some uncomfortable sensory experiences.
Having a sensory processing disorder can be seen in physical problems when asked to eat specific foods. Some examples of sensory reactions can be:
- Gagging or vomiting at the thought of eating a bowl of soggy cereal
- Goosebumps or hair standing up when touching a crunchy cucumber
- Being physically frozen until the bowl of slimy yogurt is removed from sight
As a parent, it is important to be aware of the sensory issues that are very real and how they can affect the family.
Note: Some links may be affiliate links. That means I may make a commission if you use my links to purchase, at no extra added cost to you! I only recommend products that I personally love and believe in. It’s also important to note that this article is not meant to serve as medical advice, as we are not medical professionals. This article was written to share information that might be valuable for other parents to know before you speak to your own child’s pediatrician to help get to the root cause. Full disclaimer here.
Challenges with Sensory Processing Issues
While most children under the age of 5 will go through a picky eating phase, when kids have sensory reactions to food, there are a lot of issues that can occur.
When your child has a sensory food aversion, their food choices are typically limited. That lack of a varied diet can cause nutritional deficiencies, since the food items on their ‘can-eat’ list is typically very short.
In addition to risking malnutrition, it can also have a negative impact on the family mealtime.
Studies from Harvard have shown that having one meal a day together (typically dinner) is an important ritual to establish relational connections- even as early as in the toddler years. If the meal is constantly interrupted by a difficult eater, that can disrupt the flow of the meal, which hinders the relationship building benefits.
Food is an essential component to our lives and is the reason we are able to have lots of energy- this is especially important for toddlers.
Before the age of 5, most of a person’s development is done through a lot of movement- jumping, running, skipping all through hours of play. If your child is not eating, then it can hurt their ability to develop. Statistically speaking, toddlers need lots of food to master all of the movement necessary for those early developmental milestones.
Despite there being negative consequences for picky eaters, there are plenty of resources for parents to introduce new foods.
How to introduce new foods to picky eaters
When it comes to sensory issues, the main goal when introducing new foods is to make it as non-threatening as possible. Here are a few tips:
- Know what types of food are overwhelming, specifically food textures. Is it crunchy foods that trigger a sensory response? Or maybe it is soft foods that cause a reaction? The more you understand, the easier it will be to help.
- Keep meal times consistent with at least one food type that fits your child’s food preferences.
- When older children are problem feeders, it can impact the whole family. Make sure everyone has food that they enjoy. Something I like to serve is a charcuterie board filled with different foods.
- Be patient. Think of any feeding issues as a lack of muscle control and not power struggles with you. There are so many times when our sensory-motor system can override any information, making new textures in solid foods difficult to try.
- Try different tactics for food exposure, which I go into further detail later on in the article.
Sometimes with sensory food aversion, you need to dig deeper and ask for help. Keep reading to learn about your resources.
One tactic that is popular with sensory challenges and food in occupational therapy is food chaining. It is a simple method done with young children to help make new foods less scary.
Food chaining works by starting with a food that is already approved by your child, such as a pear. You start with the pear in the form that they always eat it in, then begin expanding the way you serve the pear. It’s important to mention that the more involved they are in this process, the easier it will be.
For example, if they always eat the whole pear, show your child that you take the pear and slice it for them to enjoy. Then you can try offering other shapes, like small cubes. From there you can try different brands of pear and maybe you juice a pear.
The goal with food chaining is that you show that a certain kind of food tastes the same, no matter the form it comes in. Once that is established, then you can begin serving that food with something else, like some cheddar cheese.
Other food chain examples could be:
- French fries to mashed potatoes to baked potatoes
- Chicken nuggets to chicken drumsticks to grilled chicken breast
- Grilled cheese sandwich to a cheese quesadilla to a chicken quesadilla
Food Exposure and Sensory Food Aversion
After a win with food chaining, it is time to begin food pairing as a method of food exposure. Think of your own favorite meals: there’s usually a combination of flavors involved. That’s the goal of increasing food exposure.
For example, if your kid loves his peanut butter sandwich, try adding sliced banana or a glass of milk on the side. It can take up to 100 times for your child to accept a new food, so food exposure is an important step, according to a study done by Arnold Palmer Hospital.
Here are a few examples of food exposure:
- Serve salad in a glass bowl (so it can be seen in a non-threatening way)
- Add 1-2 small slices of cucumber on their plate (cut with a tiny cookie cutter or vegetable shape cutter like this set to make it even more adorable)
- Using food in an art project, like a potato as a stamp
What To Do When These Approaches Don’t Work
With extreme picky eating, it can feel like a never ending battle. With kids needing to eat several times a day, its a vicious cycle when their sensory profile is limited in what they can eat.
If the actions above do not work, here are a few other tactics that may work:
- See an occupational therapist that can work with you on a food chaining method (more on that below).
- Seek medical advice. An increased sensory system can sometimes be a symptom of someone with autism spectrum disorder. Discuss with your child’s pediatrician on your next well child visit to find out more about the evaluation process.
- Get your child tested for food allergies.
Remember to always talk to your child’s pediatrician with any concerns you have around their eating habits.
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Final Thoughts on Food Aversions in Children
Sensory food aversion is something that some children will experience, but there are plenty of strategies to help you and your child enjoy meals together.
Living with an extremely picky eater can make serving food a stressful situation for the entire family. It can sometimes feel like every meal you serve will end in a giant meltdown and that your kid will never eat again.
Take the time to acknowledge and celebrate any step forward. Praise your kid for trying a new food, texture or shape (and grab yourself a glass of wine).
With a child that has sensory food aversion, small steps can feel like big wins. If your child goes from only eating almonds to not throwing a fit when his plate has almonds and a slice of cheese, that’s a huge win. Celebrate every small step and take your time, and don’t forget to always talk to your pediatrician about any lingering concerns or questions you have.
A big thank you to Nicole of Toddler and Mom for this guest article! Nicole is a wife and a mom of 4 with over a decade of working in childhood development. When she isn’t writing for Toddler and Mom, she can be found working on her homestead in the Pacific Northwest or sipping on some cold brew.