school guide
assistive technologies


Picky Eaters and Problem Feeders

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Picky Eaters and Problem Feeders

Picky Eaters

Why would your child be a picky eater? 
Once you have ruled out any digestive or other medical concerns, consider your child's food aversion to be possibly sensory based.

Signs or Symptoms of Sensory Based Food Intolerance:

• Texture
Child may avoid touch to hands or mouth smooth, moist, creamy; but may crave crunchy, sour, spicy.
• Visual
Many children are 'yellow food' eaters; French fries, pasta chicken nuggets.
• Oral Motor
Low oral muscle tone, weak lip, cheek, or jaw muscles.

• Smell
Some food smells.
• Temperature
Avoidance or preference for hot, warm, room temperature, cold.

• Regulation
Difficulty accepting new food based on taste, texture, what it looks like, rigid temperament; children that find what they like and it works for them so they figure why change it  

• Behavioural
Some children who are sensory defensive in other aspects of their lives learn secondary behaviors in order to cope. They are control seekers so they can manage their environments and not have to be faced with unexpected challenges. This behavior may carry over to meal time.

Why Do Children Avoid Foods?   
Sensory sensitivities can put a child in a fight or flight response. They perceive the stimulus as noxious or dangerous. Then their learned behavioral coping strategies kick in.

Why Do Children Crave Certain Foods, Textures, or Tastes? 
Some food textures or tastes don't provide enough sensory information. Foods with strong tastes, textures can give good sensory feedback. Warm, creamy foods can be calming and comforting, hence comfort foods. 

What You Can Do

Maintain firm rules around mealtime and at the dinner table – as mentioned above, there are often undesirable behaviours that can be associated with picky eaters. Eliminate talk about what the child doesn't like and won't eat. Rules of the house can be that everyone helps prepare meal, sets table, and sits for a minimum of 10 minutes. This has nothing to do with eating the meal. Do not hold a grudge if your child won't try something new. They should feel good about their participation in the meal time event. Once you are working with your child to try new foods you won't also be working at mealtime rules and behaviors.

Prepare by desensitizing with a damp wash cloth to lips with firm pressure, a tooth brush or other tool firmly rubbing inner cheeks and tongue, and jaw compressions by applying pressure to top and low molars.

Use a plate divided into 3 sections. Put 2 foods that your child loves and is really motivated to eat:   pieces of cheese, pieces of apple, or pieces of mini M&Ms In the 3rd compartment put a new food. He needs to go around the plate taking a bite of each item before moving onto next item. New food can be touching it to lips a few times. Don't forget to praise. Then proceed to touching tongue with new food item before moving to next item. After tongue, have him hold it in his mouth; do not allow spitting it out.  Instruct him to remove it and put back in plate or napkin if he has to. It may take a few meals before ready to chew or swallow. Respect that he gave the old college try and truly does not like the food item. Move onto another food item next time and have him tell you what he would like to try. Make a list together. I can't emphasize enough the importance of not getting mad or carrying a grudge. Praise your child for his efforts. In addition to the reward of moving onto the food he likes, you can also use a token board, sticker chart, or marble jar to reward as you go; good table manners, following rules for 3 sectioned plate, smelling it, licking it, etc.

These strategies and others are not easy to implement alone. A pediatric occupational therapist or pediatric speech-language pathologist specializing in sensory processing and feeding disorders would be the professional(s) to get help from.

Lori Frommer, OTR/L
Home Therapy Solutions, LLC
Occupational Therapy and Parenting Foundations


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