5 Steps for Frustrated Parents to Get Your Sensory Child to Eat

What is food selectivity disorder?

A child has food selectivity disorder when they have a very limited selection of foods that they are willing to eat. Having food selectivity disorder is not the same as a child being a picky eater. Usually children with food selectivity wind up being underweight and/or malnourished as a result of eating such limited foods.

Food selectivity looks different for all children. Some children will only eat food with specific textures like pureed food or baby food. Other children will avoid textures like wet foods. Some kids will only eat salty foods, some only sweet foods and others only foods of a specific color.

Many times, when kids are presented with new foods, they will become extremely upset and refuse to eat. When you force selective eaters to try something new, they will spit it out or gag and make themselves throw up. Often times, they are unable to express why they are rejecting the food which leaves parents wondering what is going on!  You may be offering them cake, cookies, chips or similar things that it may seem like all kids would want to eat! Either way, it is extremely frustrating and rather than dinner being a fun time for families to spend time together, it becomes one of the most dreaded parts of your day.

Why is my child selective about food?

There is no one answer to why a child is selective about eating particular foods. There is a very high correlation between Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder with food selectivity. The most common reason is that sensory eats avoid specific food textures. Apraxia, a motor speech disorder, also can cause children to reject foods at it makes moving food around the mouth a challenge. The good news is, no matter what the cause of the food selectivity there are five simple steps to overcoming it!

Step 1: Encourage your child to Play with Food Food

Allow your child to play with foods that they do not want to eat without requiring them to eat it. The exposure to the foods without the threat of being required to eat them will create a positive association with the foods and will reduce your child’s stress.

If your child doesn’t like solid foods, you can play with cereals, by dumping them in and out of cups and bowls. You can glue pretzels to paper, string pasta, and even include some of you child’s favorite toys in the games such as putting the food in trucks or feeding the food to stuffed toys or dolls. There are limitless possibilities.  Liquid foods can be a little more messy, but with a little creativity and some rags to clean up the mess, there are also tons of options!

Stay on this step as long as necessary! Feel free to also continue it throughout the rest of the steps.  I would encourage you to use several different foods to help with generalization! No matter what, keep it fun! Remember, the goal is to create a positive association!

Step 2: Require Your Child to Kiss the Food

Children will be reluctant to try new foods. However, if you assure them that they will not have to actually eat the food, they will be far more willing to cooperate. In this step, you have the child kiss the food and then they are done! You can tell them ahead of time how many times they will have to kiss the food but you would never ask them to put the food in their mouth! Praise them for doing a really great job once they kiss the food and give them access to their favorite toy or activity before either having them kiss the food again or to go to the next step.

*You may be able to progress through all five steps in one day or you may stay on each step for days or even weeks. Stay on each step until it becomes effortless for your child. Then, move on!

Step 3: Require Your Child to Lick the Food

Step 3 is almost identical to step 2 with the exception that in step 3, they are licking and kissing the food. Like with step 2, you should end the demand, praise them and give them access to their favorite toy or activity every time they lick the food. Also, like with step 2, stay on the step until it becomes easy for the child. Then, they are ready to move to step 4.

Step 4: Require Your Child to Put the Food in his Mouth but Allow them to Spit it Out

In this step, for the first time, you are requiring the child to put the food in their mouths. For many kids, this will be the most difficult step. Be prepared to give them a major reward for trying the food, especially the first time they do it!

This is also the most difficult step for many parents because it may seem counterintuitive to allow your child to spit out the food. The main reason for this that knowing that they can spit it out makes children much more likely to try them. The good news is that more often than not, they wind up realizing the food actually tastes good and they don’t spit it out!  You don’t want to repeat this step too many times for the same food! This step is meant to be a transition to step 5. You don’t want to spend a lot of time on it. It is just an option the first few times a child tries a new food. Keep in mind, there may be some food your child just doesn’t like!

Step 5: Require Your Child to Eat the Food

Once your child has completed the prior four steps, they are ready to eat the food! If they are still a little bit apprehensive, there are things you can do to make mealtime less stressful. My recommendation is to allow them a bit of a favorite food for every few bites when eating a challenging food. Or, if you are comfortable with it, allow them to bring a toy or watch a video during dinner as long as they are eating or you can use a token board and allow them to watch a video or play with their toys after a few bites. However, typically, the key is getting kids to try foods! Usually, once they try them, they realize they actually like them!

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