Healthy Diets for Picky Eaters with SPD

by Lauren Devall, OTAS
(Salt Lake City)

For children with sensory processing disorder, mealtime can be one of the most overwhelming parts of the day, especially for children with an aversion to certain tactile or taste sensations. This can be stressful for parents worried about getting their children adequate nutrition. Here are 5 strategies for getting your child to try new foods and ways to build more nutrition into their diet.

1. Hide nutrients in the food they already like
If your child has an aversion to textured foods, sneak in nutrients that won’t change the texture. Adding protein powder, ground flax seed, or wheat germ to yogurt or oatmeal is a great way to boost nutrition. If they love mashed potatoes, try adding grated zucchini or nutritional yeast. You could also try switching to mashed sweet potato. Smoothies are a great way to get nutrients into kids who are can’t tolerate mixed or crunchy textures. Blend berries, juice or milk, greens, and a banana for creaminess for a healthy breakfast or snack.

2. Make meals visually appealing
If you know your child loves the color green, creating a green themed meal might get them excited enough to try everything on the plate. Making fruit and veggie faces on the plate is also a great way to get them more interested in the meal.

3. Mask the flavor of new foods in familiar tastes. If condiments like ranch dressing, ketchup, garlic salt, or cayenne pepper are the key to getting your child to eat something, cover new foods in these flavors. First they will taste the familiar, enjoyable taste followed by a new flavor. This allows them to ease in to the new food. As they get more comfortable with the new flavor, add less of the seasoning.

4. Practice food chaining
Food chaining is a well-researched method of getting children to enjoy different foods. You first identify foods that the child likes and then introduce similar foods in small quantities. By testing out different foods, the therapist can begin to understand what aspects, such as taste or texture, the child is trying to avoid. This method takes some persistence but it can be hugely successful in getting children to branch out of their food comfort zone. It also gives you an opportunity to learn about your child and show support for their food woes. Consider finding a therapist near you who is trained in food chaining therapy.

5. Involve kids in preparing food
If a child knows where a meal came from, they are more likely to be intrigued by it. Give the child small meal prep responsibilities like husking corn, mixing batter, or measuring out ingredients. Children as young as three enjoy having responsibilities in the kitchen and learning about what goes in to making the food they eat. In addition, being involved in making the meal makes them more likely to want to try out their creation.

Please note that all of these are simply suggestions and should not be taken as medical advice. If child is experiencing severe food aversions should talk to your pediatrician or occupational therapist. Some occupational therapists are trained in feeding therapy and can help you develop a plan tailored for your child.

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