Helping Your Child Build a Relationship with Food - When They Have Sensory Issues and Food Preferences

Helping Your Child Build a Relationship with Food - When They Have Sensory Issues and Food Preferences

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It’s normal to worry about your child’s eating and growth. The good thing is as humans we are resilient. Our bodies are born knowing what to do. Some children however may need extra help.

“Parents decide what foods to offer, when and where. The child decides whether and how much to eat”.

This approach helps children to feel safe. This can help them eat better.

It is normal that a child will need to see and try each new food multiple times before they will eat it. It is hard to put a number on it, but studies show at least 20 times. The tip is to keep including all foods your family or you prefer as part of the foods you offer your child.

Some children are adventurous with eating and others are very fussy and most fall somewhere between. At its extreme a picky or fussy eater:

  • Refuses to eat anything other than very specific foods.

“My son only eats one brand of cracker.”

  • Refuses foods that are not presented in a very specific way.

” He only eats sandwiches cut in triangles.”

  • Prefers a certain texture for example older baby or toddler still having pureed foods.
  • Refuses entire food groups (e.g. vegetables, meat and alternatives, dairy or fruit).
  • Only eats when fed by a parent.
  • Has disruptive behaviours at mealtimes (e.g. throws unwanted food).

There are a number of causes why some children are more ‘picky’ or ‘fussy’ with their food. We do know this can make meal planning and times feel frustrating as parent or caregiver. So, what is the best approach to take?

Feeding roles

Remember your role in feeding is to:

  • Set up a regular meal and snack routine.
  • Help your child feel comfortably seated at the table, this may include a booster seat and feet support.
  • Not bribe or force a child to try or eat foods.
  • Offer an increasing variety of foods to your child over time.
  • Try and remain calm when talking about food choices and eating with your child.
  • Make meal times as relaxed as possible with no distractions like screens, TV, background noise from other activities.
  • Allow mess particularly for younger children who are learning to eat.
  • Eat a variety of food and textures yourself to role model this to your child.
  • Try not to label your child as a fussy eater. If you need to explain your child’s food requests say they are still learning to eat a variety of foods or doesn’t eat that particular food yet.

Helping your child eat enough food for their body and continue to build the variety of foods they will eat.

Most children are naturally in tune with their appetite cues. Sometimes feelings like stress or anxiety, illness or medications can get in the way of this. Children on the autism spectrum or those with sensory challenges can also find eating more complex . So, some children will need extra support. It is important that you seek the help you need (see below).

You can start by working out what foods your child prefers and why – is it colour, texture, smell or taste? This helps you build a list of foods to start with.

If you can see a pattern this can help you start to build up variety by including similar foods (texture, colour, taste) or pairing familiar foods with unfamiliar foods.  For example, if your child likes pasta gradually try different shapes and flavours. Try to start to include the sauce or topping on the table or alongside in separate dishes with no pressure to eat it.

A visit to a dietitian or speech pathologist who specialises in feeding issues or sensory challenges may be helpful.

The key is to keep trying and be patient.

What else can help

Children learn about food and eating in lots of ways. Providing opportunities to learn away from the family meal table can help children become more adventurous overtime:

  • saying “you don’t have to eat it” and mean it
  • always offer a food they enjoy at each meal (yes, even if all they eat at that meal is bread)
  • shopping – seeing and touching a variety of foods
  • food based (messy) play activities eg cooked spaghetti, dough, flour, away from the meal times.
  • cooking (with no expectation of eating the food)
  • eating experiences with peers at child care, school or even a friend’s house
  • reading books about food and eating
  • gardening.

Nutrition

If you are concerned about your child’s fussy eating, get your child’s growth and health checked on regular basis with their health professional like your GP or child health nurse. It can be reassuring to consider all foods have some nutrition. You may be surprised that your child might be getting what they need, even from the limited range of food they eat. Try to think about what you child eats over a whole day or week rather than meal to meal. Over time with support and patience your child will increase the range of foods they eat for both nutrition and social reasons.

Get the help you need

It is important to talk to your child health nurse or GP about your child’s eating if you are worried. This is even if they are tracking well on their growth charts. This way you and your child can get the help you need early. Part of any assessment of your child’s eating with your child’s health care provider may involve:

  • asking about your child’s history of feeding and growth from birth
  • asking about any health issues along the way for example an illness like gastro
  • asking about the types of food they usually eat, and those that they find the most challenging.

This helps understand possible reasons and work on ways to help.

A dietitian or speech pathologist who specialises in feeding or sensory issues may help if

  • your child is low in a nutrient/s or their growth is not tracking well along growth charts. They may need a supplement or help with some feeding strategies best suited to your child.
  • you are finding mealtimes very stressful and need some extra help and ideas
  • you are concerned your child may not be meeting their nutrition needs or their growth is a concern to you
  • if you find your child is extremely limited in the foods they’ll accept or is cutting out entire food groups (e.g. meat and alternatives, dairy, fruit, vegetables or grains) or is eating less and less variety over time.

Talk to your child health nurse or GP about a referral.