On picky eaters… sensory defensive eaters

Probably one of the biggest challenges a parent can face is a picky eater. It’s because eating is such an integral part of our day. Challenges with eating mess up a substantial part of the day, everyday. Part 2 in our series on picky eaters is about sensory defensive eaters.

Food allergies and intolerances

Food allergies can cause itching.

There are basically three reasons for picky eating. The first might be food allergies or intolerances. We have addressed this in Part 1 of this series. But suffice to say, there are normally signs related to general health like rashes and itching or constant upper respiratory tract infections or diarrhea when there are food allergies and intolerances.

Sensory defensive eaters

The second reason and probably more general than most people know is an issue with sensory integration. This happens when the senses send out of sync messages to the brain. In short, there are people who are sensory seeking and people who are sensory defensive. Where food is concerned sensory seeking people love new adventures. They enjoy spicy food and a huge variety. Sensory seeking people are not afraid to try something new. These are the people who will eat fried mice and cockroaches on an outreach. It is not a challenge to feed them 😁.

Sensory seeking eaters love spicy food.

Sensory defensive people are those that will not visit a friend because they might have to eat something they don’t like. These are people who stick to familiar food. They will not easily eat spicy food although their food is not necessarily bland. Parents will tell stories of children that will only eat white bread or only eat one or two different foods. Meals often become a stand off between the child and the parent(s) and it is usually the child that wins. They just won’t budge. Anything food related becomes a traumatic affair.

Unlike the undisciplined eater, see Part 3 of this series, the sensory defensive eater would rather starve than eat anything that would be an attack on their senses. There is very little a parent can do. Most often nothing works, not punishment, not a bribe, nothing.

Trauma

Dealing with a sensory defensive eater is one of the most traumatic things a parent can experience. There are terrible feelings of guilt and shame. The parent becomes desperate. Bystanders point fingers. Stories of “when I was young my father would have sorted this out quick-quick” abound. “He is just naughty.” “What a brat!” Many tears are shed. By the children and by the mom. Meals become a dreaded affair.

This should not be so. Meals should be one of the highlights of a family’s day. It should be a relaxing time of conversation and fellowship. Meals should not be a battleground. So what can you do?

Meals should be one of the highlights of a family's day.

Taste and Smell

First, it is necessary to understand what the challenge is. There are three obstacles for sensory defensive eaters. The first two are a bit smaller than the other: taste and smell. Of course, the two are linked. Some children cannot handle especially the smell of certain foods. They don’t even get as far as tasting. These are children who will comment about strong smells long before you smell anything at all. They will either not eat spicy food or they will use lots of spices and sauces to hide the real taste of the food. It is a good idea to try. Find spices they like and add it to unpalatable food. Often people who do not like hot spices will still enjoy pepper. But you can also use cinnamon, allspice, a tiny bit of clove powder, or even thyme or oregano.

Then there is tomato sauce, chutney, mustard, barbecue sauce, mayonnaise, salad sauce or lemon juice. It might be a choice between the lesser of two evils. Then by all means, choose the lesser.

Texture

The third issue is a bit more of a challenge to handle. There are people who cannot handle the texture of food. It makes them gag. They will for example not eat meat because they cannot handle the sensation on their teeth. It feels like rubber. They will not eat guacamole because it is too soft. They will not eat rice because it is not soft enough and there are too many small particles. Because they feel every single rice grain it overwhelms their senses. People with this challenge will often not eat food that is mixed like a mixed salad or a one dish meal. Each food type must be kept separate. Sometimes in completely separate dishes (plates) or sometimes on one plate but with well-defined boundaries between each.

When children are very young this is not something they can explain. But if the parent understands what the problem is, at least part of the fight will be removed. Now it becomes a question of what texture it is that they like and what texture do they detest? Children who do not enjoy guacamole will also not like porridge. So, find something else for breakfast.

A child who doesn’t eat mashed potato might enjoy baked potato. Are you a firm believer in spinach but your child cannot swallow it down? Cut it in really fine, small pieces and add it like a herb to meat. It works well. But take the time to cut it really fine 😄.

Sound

I mentioned three obstacles, but there is actually a fourth one and that is sound. In western cultures this is not such a big issue. Just don’t give Rice Krispies. The snap, crackle and pop is a real affront to sensitive ears! In other cultures this might be a bigger problem.

Find what works

Find what works for your child and stick to it. As they grow older they might become more adventurous. And if they don’t? It’s not that important, is it? If they eat completely different to the rest of the family, teach them to prepare their own food. But let them do it while you are also working in the kitchen and make it a nice, companionable time.

I like the French habit of having a jug of water available on the table. Add a little bit of lemon for taste. If this is a habit from a young age, it can help a bit with swallowing down something “nasty”.

Sensory defensive eaters appreciate a jug of water on the table.

Choose your battles

The point is that you need to choose your battles and food should not be one of them. Take a step back, take a deep breath and think about it. Is the stress worth it? Is the extra 30 minutes you have to spend to cater to their needs not worth the stress free environment? Three battles a day less. You know, it sounds good to me. If you are worried about a well-balanced diet, speak to a dietitian and find a supplement.

Ways to introduce new foods

If you are able to remove the fight from meals and the environment becomes stress free, sensory defensive eaters will become more open to try new things. Because they detest change, they would rather stay with the familiar. Find ways to introduce new food. You might have one evening a month where you eat international food. There could be a German meal, French, Italian, Japanese, Indian, Nigerian… Or you could order takeaway from a Chinese restaurant. Make it an event with lots of preparations, fun and laughter. The only rule is that everyone must take at least two bites. There can be a dress-up or a movie afterwards. When the children are older, you could take them to an international restaurant. Just make sure that it is a relaxed, fun time for the whole family.

Introduce new foods in a fun way to sensory defensive eaters.

I would love to hear your ideas for introducing new food in the comments.

Occupational Therapists

There is one other recourse for sensory defensive eaters. The occupational therapist can help. They have all sorts of wonderful tricks up their sleeves. One of them is for the mother to press her finger on the child’s palate just behind the teeth immediately before eating. The OT will have a more scientific explanation than mine but basically it “wakes” the palate up so that the feeling of the food does not come as such a huge shock.

Eat at home

A word of advice for the parents of picky eaters. Eat at home! Avoid eating at other people’s houses, whether family or friends, unless they really understand and have compassion for the situation.

If you cannot avoid it, take food with for your child. Tell the hostess beforehand that she doesn’t have to prepare anything for your child, you will bring something with. If anyone wants to know, it is for health reasons and leave it at that. They don’t need to know that it is for everyone’s mental health!!

Family Time

Meals should become good memories.

There are daily battles when raising kids. Don’t let food be one of them. It’s not worth it. Meals should be family time, relaxed and companionable. They should become good memories.

Bon appetit!

Sarah Dee 🌻

Itching image by Anastasia Gepp from Pixabay
Spicy meal image by Baohm from Pixabay
Family at the table image by skeeze from Pixabay
Sauces image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay
Avocado image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay
Jug of water image by pasja1000 from Pixabay
Chinese meal image by Lindsey White from Pixabay
Laughing boy image by Mojca J from Pixabay
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