• Child Development


Sensory Aversions Vs. Picky Eating

You may have heard about picky eaters, but what if your child's aversions go beyond mere preferences? If your child cringes at the touch of certain fabrics, covers their ears at the slightest sound, is sensitive to bright lights, or avoids messy play like it's their sworn enemy, you may have a child with sensory aversions on your hands. These seemingly unrelated behaviors might be indicative of something more significant that impacts your child's relationship with food.

While picky eaters may have a limited palate, children with sensory eating aversions can experience physical discomfort and even fear when presented with certain foods. Understanding the difference between picky eating and sensory eating aversions can be crucial for parents in supporting their child's healthy relationship with food.

Understanding Sensory Eating

Sensory eating refers to a distinct type of eating behavior characterized by sensitivities to various aspects of food, such as texture, flavor, and smell. Unlike picky eaters who may simply have preferences for certain foods, individuals with sensory eating issues experience sensory overload when faced with specific food characteristics. This can manifest as an aversion to certain textures, leading them to only tolerate smooth, pureed foods while gagging at the sight of crunchy snacks or slices of meat. Sensory eating can also involve sensitivities to flavors and smells, resulting in a limited range of accepted foods.

The Impact of Sensory Eating

For individuals with sensory eating issues, the act of eating can be associated with physical and mental discomfort. Rather than enduring potential pain, they may choose not to eat at all. Traditional advice for picky eaters, such as "they get what they get or they don't eat" or "they must try at least one bite," is unlikely to be effective for children with sensory eating issues. These individuals perceive food as a source of pain, and even if they are hungry, they will avoid eating to prevent that discomfort. It is essential to understand and empathize with their perspective to develop appropriate strategies for addressing their sensory sensitivities.

Challenges and Consequences of Sensory Eating

Sensory eating issues can lead to the development of negative associations with food and mealtime. Individuals may begin to fear certain foods and experience heightened stress surrounding eating. This can also extend to eating out in restaurants and participating in social meals. Parents often find themselves constantly reminding and prompting their children to complete each meal, which further adds stress to the overall eating experience. Additionally, concerns about nutrient deficiencies arise, as the physiological reactions to certain foods are compounded by behavioral and emotional stress.

Differentiating Sensory Eating from Picky Eating

It is crucial to differentiate sensory eating from picky eating, as the strategies that work for picky eaters may not be effective for individuals with sensory eating issues. While picky eaters may have food preferences, sensory eaters perceive food as potentially causing physical discomfort or pain. Recognizing this distinction helps us approach sensory eating with empathy and develop targeted strategies to support these individuals.

Decoding Sensory Eating: Key Signs and Strategies for Identification

Identifying whether your child has sensory eating issues can be challenging, as every child's sensory experiences and preferences are unique. However, there are several signs and behaviors that may indicate the presence of sensory eating issues. Here are some common indicators to look out for:

  1. Limited Food Choices: Your child consistently shows a strong preference for a narrow range of foods, avoiding certain textures, flavors, or smells. They may have a limited list of accepted foods and resist trying new foods.
  2. Sensitivity to Food Textures: Your child demonstrates a strong aversion or gag reflex when presented with certain food textures. They may struggle with foods that are lumpy, crunchy, slimy, or mixed textures.
  3. Avoidance of Strong Flavors: Your child avoids foods with strong flavors, such as spicy or bitter foods, due to sensory discomfort. They may prefer bland or mild-tasting foods.
  4. Difficulty with Mixed Textures: Your child struggles with foods that have mixed textures or contain multiple ingredients. They may have difficulty tolerating foods with chunks or pieces, preferring smoother or pureed options.
  5. Extreme Food Preferences: Your child's food preferences are rigid and inflexible. They may insist on specific brands, colors, or presentation of foods and become distressed when these preferences are not met.
  6. Emotional Reactions: Your child displays strong emotional reactions to certain foods, such as fear, disgust, or discomfort. They may become anxious, cry, or have meltdowns when confronted with unfamiliar or disliked foods.
  7. Limited Food Play or Exploration: Your child avoids touching, playing, or exploring different food textures. They may resist engaging in activities that involve messy play with food, such as finger painting with food or exploring new textures with their hands.
  8. Difficulty with Mealtime Routines: Your child exhibits resistance or anxiety during mealtime routines. They may have difficulty sitting at the table, become easily distracted, or display challenging behaviors related to eating.
  9. Oral Sensitivity: Your child demonstrates oral sensitivity, such as discomfort or aversion to toothbrushing, certain dental textures, or oral care routines.

If you observe several of these signs in your child, it may be an indication of sensory eating issues. However, it is important to consult with a healthcare professional, such as an occupational therapist or pediatrician specializing in feeding difficulties, to obtain a proper evaluation and diagnosis. These professionals can assess your child's sensory profile, provide individualized strategies, and support your child's sensory needs during mealtimes.

Sensory Eaters Unite: Effective Strategies to Navigate the World of Food Sensitivities

It is crucial to approach mealtimes with sensitivity and respect for your child's unique sensory needs. Here are some helpful strategies to support your child in developing a positive relationship with food without forcing or pressuring them:

  1. Embrace Non-Forceful Approach: Never coerce or insist that your child eat a particular food. Forcing them can create a negative association and trigger their nervous system. Respect their boundaries and let them explore at their own pace. Pressuring a child with sensory eating issues to eat can heighten their fears and anxieties. Instead, create a supportive and understanding environment that respects their feelings and fears surrounding food. Avoid adding additional pressure on top of the existing fears associated with eating.
  2. Understand Sensory Overload: Recognize that trying new foods can be overwhelming for sensory eaters. The smell, appearance, taste, and texture may be intense for them. Be patient and understanding during this multi-sensory experience.
  3. Be Flexible: Accept that some days your child may have more sensory sensitivities, which can further limit their food choices. Understand that each day is unique, and it's okay if their preferences fluctuate.
  4. Reduce Food Talk: Avoid constant discussions about food. Sensory eaters already face challenges, and our food-centric society can be overwhelming for them. Minimize the focus on food throughout the day. Instead engage in open discussion and validation. Encourage open discussions about their fears and concerns related to eating. Validate their feelings and let them know that you understand the challenges they face. This helps create a safe space for them to express their emotions and builds trust in the process.
  5. Allow Natural Expansion: If your child has a few balanced food choices, respect their preferences. Allow their food choices to expand naturally over time, while also focusing on enriching their sensory experiences.
  6. Encourage Playful Interaction: Offer daily opportunities for your child to play and explore food in a fun and non-pressure manner. Avoid suggesting they "try" or "taste" the food. Let them engage naturally without expectations. Engage children in activities that involve food, such as cooking, baking, or art projects that allow them to play with different textures. This desensitization approach can help them gradually become more comfortable with different food textures. For instance, making a dessert like chocolate pudding with crushed cookies on top can help them get accustomed to textures on their hands before progressing to tasting.
  7. Engage in Sensory Activities: Incorporate daily sensory activities that involve powerful sensations. This can help desensitize and regulate their sensory system. Consider activities that provide tactile experiences since the oral sensory system is connected to the overall tactile system. This can include playing with sand, slime, bubbles, dry rice, oats, dry beans, and other sensory activities for your child.
  8. Prepare the Nervous System: Prior to mealtimes, engage your child in 15 minutes of vestibular and proprioceptive play to prepare their nervous system and brain for the upcoming meal.

Vestibular play involves activities that stimulate the vestibular system, which is responsible for balance and spatial awareness. It includes movements such as swinging, spinning, sliding, and rocking. Engaging in vestibular play helps children improve their balance, coordination, and body awareness.

Proprioceptive play, on the other hand, focuses on activities that provide deep pressure input and joint compression, stimulating the proprioceptive system. This system provides information about body position, muscle movement, and the amount of force needed for different activities. Proprioceptive play can involve activities like climbing, jumping, pushing, pulling, and heavy lifting. These activities help children develop a sense of body awareness, strength, and coordination.

Both vestibular and proprioceptive play are crucial for promoting sensory integration, self-regulation, and overall development in children. They provide valuable sensory input that supports their ability to process and respond to sensory information from their environment effectively. Incorporating these types of play into a child's daily routine can have a positive impact on their sensory processing skills, motor development, and overall well-being.

  1. Pre-Meal Oral Stimulation: Help prepare your child's oral structures by offering oral sensory tools like teethers or blowing bubbles before mealtimes. This can provide sensory input and encourage resistive sucking or blowing.
  2. Trying Plate: Set up a "trying plate" separate from their regular meal plate and place new foods on it. Allow your child to take bites when they feel ready. Start with one meal per day, gradually increasing if they show progress and comfort with the approach.

By implementing these strategies, you can support your child in their sensory eating journey and create a positive mealtime experience that respects their individual needs. Remember, every step counts in helping them develop a healthy relationship with food.

At Little Lunches we encourage family involvement in meal preparation, creating opportunities for shared experiences and bonding. By engaging children in age-appropriate tasks related to food, such as selecting ingredients or participating in simple cooking activities, Little Lunches promotes a sense of empowerment and ownership for kids over their meals.

Ultimately, Little Lunches offers a holistic approach to supporting children with sensory eating aversions by promoting positive mealtime experiences, expanding food choices, and fostering a healthy relationship with food. Through our app's creative and inclusive meal planning strategies, families can embark on a journey of sensory exploration, where every bite becomes an opportunity for growth, discovery, and enjoyment.




Dany Sosa, Orofacial-Myofunctional Feeding Therapist

Sabir, M., Saeed, H., & Iqbal, F. (2021). Sensory Processing Difficulties and Their Association with Quality of Life among Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Review. Cureus, 13(7), e16745. doi:10.7759/cureus.16745. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9218328/

1 year ago