Children can be picky eaters, but when your child's diet is limited and he refuses foods that many kids enjoy, that could be a sign of sensory issues. Your toddler or preschooler might reject foods that present too much new visual or tactile information. But you aren't doomed to preparing the same two foods forever. Gradual changes in food color, flavor and texture can help children learn to appreciate new foods.
1. Find Your Child's Food Comfort Zone
Knowing your child's sensory limits will help you expand upon them gradually. Keep a food diary. Note all foods your child eats, tries to eat or rejects. Look for similarities among the foods she accepts, the ones she attempts to eat and the ones she rejects. Some children with sensory issues will only eat foods of a certain texture, some of a certain color. Note what the foods are served on, as well -- some children require food on certain plates, or will reject the use of utensils. Note any instances of gagging or trouble swallowing, and report these to your child's doctor or occupational therapist.
2. Start With the Familiar
Don't jump immediately into offering completely new foods. Your youngster needs to ease into new sensations. Offer new foods that seem to comply with your child's food "rules." If your kid only eats crunchy foods, offer freeze-dried fruits and veggies (cut small), tortilla chips and falafel patties shaped into discs before frying to maximize the crunchy/soft ratio. If red foods are all she eats, add beet powder or red food coloring to baked goods, or add additional veggies and meatballs to the traditional borscht -- everything will take on a reddish hue.
3. The More Things Change, the More Your Tyke Might Eat
Slowly altering the foods you offer your child might result in a broadened palate. Start with one acceptable food at a time. If your child will only eat yellow foods, use carrot juice or food coloring to color cake or applesauce orange. If your child will only eat purees, try switching to a slightly thicker puree or one with soft chunks. Be patient with rejection and refrain from using deception. Tricks such as hiding extra vegetables in spaghetti sauce or supplements in your child’s drink may work some of the time, but they can also backfire, according to Marci Wheeler at the Indiana Resource Center for Autism.
4. Moving Forward
Continue offering all the foods your child was initially limited to. If he rejects a new food at first, offer it again after a few days. Getting used to the sight of a new food might stoke his appetite. Let your little one explore the texture of a new food on his own. According to Dr. Sheena Carter from Emory University, children who resist a new texture when given a food by someone else are more willing to try it if they have control over the food themselves.
- Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation: Parent Tips: Picky Eaters
- Emory University: Ideas for Children With Tactile Sensory Issues
- Indiana Resource Center for Autism: Mealtime and Children on the Autism Spectrum: Beyond Picky, Fussy and Fads
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association: Treating Children With Feeding Disorders
- New Visions: Expanding Children's Diets
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