In preschool, Cole and his classmates were introduced to the story of Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss. They were excited when their teacher actually cooked up ham and fried eggs with green food coloring. Inspired by the story, all the children took a bite to discover whether they, too, liked green eggs and ham-all, that is, except for Cole. Cole's sensory processing issues made it extra hard for him to tolerate any new food, so while he understood the point of the story, he wasn't going anywhere near that "icky stuff."
We all know kids need to eat a variety of healthy foods, but picky eaters often need more exposure to a "new" food than other kids do before they will take a bite. For children with sensory processing disorder and/or autism, who experience the world as a confusing and inconsistent place, where unpleasant and disorienting sensations can bombard them at any time, familiarity is very comforting. It may take much time and repetition to get a picky eater with sensory issues to try a new food.
To avoid wasting food as you are working on getting your child to try something new, serve him a tiny portion, perhaps even one small bite or spoonful, on his plate. Work toward having him tolerate the unfamiliar food on his plate without fussing. You may have to start by serving him the food on a separate plate, then later, serve it on his plate but make sure it's not touching any other foods. The next step is to insist that he touch it with his finger, then pick it up and touch it to his tongue. After that, the goal should be to have him place it in his mouth and chew it. Allow him to spit it out in a napkin if he finds it very distressing and intolerable. In this way, you can slowly but surely expand his food choices.
Choose one healthy food to try to work into your picky eater's diet. Make it one that is somewhat similar to a food she already will eat. If she will eat peas, try corn kernels, which are similar in size and texture. Often it's the "feel" of the food that matters most to a child with sensory issues. Recipes for toddlers and children that sneak vegetables into sauces may work if there are no lumps or bumps in the sauce, but your child's sense of taste may be so exquisite that she notices something's different about her pizza today.
If your picky eater with sensory issues resists mixed textures, which is a common problem, work on introducing simple foods without condiments and that have simple textures. A slice of tomato that has been deseeded, a piece of roast chicken with the skin removed, or a hardboiled egg yolk or egg white separated from the rest of the egg offer simple textures.
Some parents find some success in getting their child with sensory issues to tolerate two different textures or temperatures by serving a sugary treat such as ice cream with broken cookies mixed into it or hot fudge drizzled over the top. But don't be surprised if her sensory issues cause her to place her need for familiar foods with simple textures over any desire for something sweet! You may actually be better off working on getting her to eat plain celery sticks or cucumbers slices with the seeds and skins removed. What's more, simple, healthy foods are easy to prepare and keep on hand to be introduced again and again.
If the child has a favorite junk food, such as French fries or corn chips, introduce healthier versions of these foods and healthier foods that are similar in texture and shape. Steamed red potatoes with the skins removed have a texture similar to that of French fries, for instance, while crunchy foods such as carrots or snap peas give sensory input similar to that of chips. Serve raw vegetables and fruits as snacks and appetizers before meals if it is difficult to get her to eat her broccoli rather than just her macaroni and cheese. Encourage your child to find favorite fruits, vegetables, and whole grain foods and serve them to her often.
Keep in mind that children who severely limit their food choices, particularly if they self-limit to foods containing gluten (an ingredient in foods derived from wheat and some other grains) and casein (a protein found in milk and milk-based products), may have a food intolerance or celiac disease. In fact, these children often have digestive or skin problems as a result of their food intolerances, and crave the very foods their bodies can't tolerate well. If you suspect this is the case, consult with a nutritionist who is knowledgeable about sensory issues and eating difficulties in children. In extreme cases, a feeding clinic program can help.
copyright (c) 2012 Nancy Peske
The information contained here is provided as a public service. It is for informational and educational purposes only and should not be construed as personal medical advice. Although every effort is made to ensure that this material is accurate and up-to-date, it is provided for the convenience of the user and should not be considered definitive.
Nancy Peske is the coauthor of the award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issuesand an advocate for kids with sensory processing disorder. She writes a blog for parents of children with sensory processing disorder at http://www.sensorysmartparent.wordpress.com and offers inspiration and information for parents at http://www.sensorysmartparent.com
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