Do you have a picky eater? Are meal times a battle? Before you get frustrated and assume your child is just strong-willed, take a closer look at what is really going on.
Yes, some kids truly do like to feel in control and may assert this behavior at meal times. In that case it is just a phase. It is what most people refer to as a picky eater. But for many refusal to eat is not simply a choice. This is when kids lose picky eater status and instead have feeding challenges. There is a big difference.
Refusing to eat broccoli for a period of time is not a big deal. Being distracted one day by a new toy during lunch is no cause for concern. But if feeding your child is causing frustration at every single meal he or she may have oral sensitivities related to sensory processing disorder (SPD).
Do you have to convince your child to chew and swallow one bite of food after ten to twenty minutes of it being in his mouth? Does your child gag on foods with certain textures? It’s not because she is being naughty. For some kids eating is hard.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory Processing Disorder can manifest in many ways. One of them is in the mouth.
If every meal is a challenge, here are some signs of oral SPD to look for in your picky eating child:
- everything is “spicy”
- gags on food easily
- holds food in mouth for long periods of time (i.e. one bite for 20 minutes)
- stores food in cheek without chewing
- brushing teeth is difficult
- nurses for long periods of time (i.e. one hour + for each feeding) or will only nurse for a few minutes at a time
- difficulty transitioning from breastmilk/formula to pureed foods
- difficulty transitioning from pureed foods to chewable foods
- difficulty chewing and swallowing raw foods
- skin/peels on food is bothersome
- can’t take bites with front teeth/bites on side of mouth with back teeth
- tongue is very rigid when touched
- won’t use silverware/continues to use hands to eat at an older age
- thumb sucking or extended use of pacifier
- takes a drink after every bite of food/is always thirsty
- mouth breathing throughout day and night
- loud talking/one volume
There are many other symptoms of SPD that can go along with the oral attributes, like sensitivity to certain textures on the skin, intolerance of wet clothes or tags in clothes or hypersensitivity to lights and sounds. You may want to take note of them as well.
When Meals Are a Struggle with Picky Eaters
How do I know all of this? My oldest daughter has struggled since infancy with oral sensitivities. Every meal ended in frustration. One piece of toast could take an hour to eat. Or she might hold one grape in her mouth for thirty minutes.
No amount of begging or pleading helped solve what I thought was “picky eating.” Even at ten years old she still has a hard time with some of the mechanics of biting and chewing.
But we have found ways to get through meal times now without too much of a struggle. She eats a variety of real, nourishing foods.
While SPD can impact the whole body, this article focuses on the oral aspects. In particular how to season food in a way that your child is more likely to eat it.
For most children with SPD pretty much everything has a strong flavor or tastes “spicy” (this may not be the case for everyone, but it is more common). Bland food is much better tolerated. But it’s not much fun for the whole family to have to eat bland food, which is why we tend to look at these aversions as “picky eating.” Thankfully you don’t have to eat bland food for life!
The number one way to season food for a child with oral sensory processing disorder is unrefined sea salt(found on Amazon).
Salt is well-tolerated for most palates. My daughter actually asks to eat it plain! So using plenty of mineral-rich sea salt is a great starting point.
What Seasonings Work With a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) Diet?
After your picky eater adjusts to salted food you can gradually experiment with other seasoning. The key is to start with very small amounts (like a 1/2 tsp. for a whole meal). You may not even be able to tell the difference in taste when you add such small amounts to a dish. But if there’s sensory processing disorder in play, your child will.
Through trial and error I have found various spices and herbs that are mild to the palate but still add flavor. My top five cooking seasonings (aside from sea salt) are:
- Celery salt
- Dill weed
- Garlic powder
- Herbs – basil, parsley, rosemary
- Savory seasonings – cinnamon and nutmeg – these must be used in very small amounts
An easy way to experiment with seasoning for “picky eaters” is in condiments. Then your child can take one bite and the whole meal isn’t ruined if he doesn’t like it. As you learn what spices your child tolerates you can start adding them to full meals.
It is also important to try these mild seasonings on food of different textures and temperatures. You will get a full understanding of your child’s tolerances. Maybe he can handle a little extra spice in a casserole but will only eat vegetables with salt.
These are some great things to gradually add to your food and see how your child tolerates them. But learning what to avoid is just as important as what to add.
Cut the Heat for Oral Sensitivity & Change Mealtime for Your “Picky” Eater
Even though you may think salt and pepper are about the most basic spices when cooking, children with SPD who present as picky eaters will have a strong reaction to pepper. Its flavor lingers on the tongue. Any seasoning that is considered “hot” should be left out. This includes things like cayenne, chili powder and red pepper flakes.
Serve pepper on the side at a meal so those that want more seasoning can have it. But leave it out of the dishes you cook.
When eating at a restaurant be sure to ask how the food is seasoned. I can’t remember how many times my daughter has gotten a meal at a restaurant and would only take a few bites because it was all too spicy.
We are now very careful about what she orders. Pizza with no sauce, chicken without seasoning. I even bring our own salad dressing to a restaurant! It makes the meal much more enjoyable for her.
Cooking for Oral SPD
Here is a great interview with an expert on sensory processing disorder with tips and tricks for getting kids to eat.
If you can’t view the video above, click Sensory Processing Disorder & How to Get Kids to Eat Healthy Anyway to see it directly on YouTube.
Food doesn’t have to be flavorless for someone with oral SPD. But it does take time to get the palate adjusted to seasoning. Keep it mild. Take it slow. When you figure out what your child tolerates best, create your own spice blend for easy cooking (and watch “picky eating” disappear!). We love this homemade sausage seasoning for sensitive palates.
I season just about everything I make with sea salt (found on Amazon), celery salt and a small amount of garlic powder. We get flavor, and my daughter will eat it. Then my husband and son can add all the pepper they like to their food!
Additional Treatments for Oral Sensory Processing Disorder (that may solve picky eating too)
One final note about oral SPD. In addition to catering to your child’s needs and adjusting their food, speech therapy can be very beneficial. There are many exercises that help retrain the palate. This will allow for a broader variety of foods and flavors over time.
We also did orthodontic work for my daughter to reduce mouth breathing and help her overall oral posture. Read about our journey here.
It is important to realize that oral SPD can be related to gut health. Making sure your child is eating a nutrient-dense diet is critical.
If you are looking for more tips on feeding a child with oral sensory issues check out this post! Or the book Why Won’t My Child Eat?! is a great resource.
Oral SPD is not limited to children eating solid food. It can cause problems with breastfeeding as well. Here are some natural remedies to help with breastfeeding issues.
Feeding a picky eating child with oral SPD can be very challenging! Don’t get overwhelmed or frustrated. Be patient and make gradual changes. In time your child will be able eat better and tolerate more tastes and textures.