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Is Your Child Just a Picky Eater – Or Could It Be Something More?

Many young children are picky eaters. But, some have food sensory issues that go beyond typical pickiness that can affect long-term nutrition and health.

Updated April 27, 2019

By Jamie Bergstein, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist and Supervisor Virtua Pediatric Early Intervention Program

Many young children are picky eaters. While this can be frustrating for parents, most kids usually grow out of this phase before their nutrition actually suffers. However, children with developmental disorders like autism can sometimes develop food aversions that are far more serious and long-term than typical pickiness. 

If you have a child with food sensory issues, it’s important to spot potential problems early on and take the necessary steps to provide your child with the balanced nutrition he or she needs. 

Understanding food sensory issues

Some developmental conditions can cause children to be especially sensitive to the smell, taste, visual appeal and texture of food. Because of this sensitivity, commonly referred to as a food sensory issue, children may avoid or reject certain foods. 

Younger children tend to reject foods based on texture, while older children may reject foods based on the color or smell. Some children even reject entire meals because the different foods on the plate are touching each other. The biggest food sensory issue usually involves how the food feels to your child when it’s in his mouth. 

Food sensory problems and nutritional concerns 

Sometimes children with food sensory issues only avoid a few specific foods. In other cases, children will avoid entire food categories, such as dairy, green vegetables, raw vegetables, meats or citrus fruits. These aversions can significantly limit your child’s diet, which can lead to weight loss, failure to gain weight, nutritional deficiencies and even weight gain if your child only eats starchy, processed or sugary foods.

Getting help for your child 

Food sensory issues can be frustrating for you and your child, but help is available. Children can overcome many of these issues with early intervention. 

If you think your child may be experiencing food sensory issues, the first step is to talk to your child’s doctor, who may refer you to a qualified occupational therapist for further evaluation. 

Your occupational therapist will use a variety of techniques to help identify and overcome your child’s food aversions, including: 

  • Working with your child to find patterns to his or her food aversions.
  • Discussing the food aversion and helping your child articulate the cause of the problem: too slimy, too scary-looking, too crunchy, too smelly.
  • Asking your child to touch or play with the problematic food to increase tolerance.
  • Introducing new food textures by mixing them in with textures your child likes.

Throughout therapy, the occupational therapist will provide you with guidance on how to handle your child’s food sensory issues at home. The key is being patient and persistent without being forceful. Structured routines such as eating at the same times and locations, and with the same utensils, can help make your child more comfortable. Parents and siblings should be good role models while being supportive and encouraging. 

Your child’s therapist may also give your child “homework” or other activities to try at home to help increase their tolerance for certain textures, smells, sights or colors. Over time, occupational therapy will help your child learn to enjoy a wider variety of foods. 

By understanding and recognizing food sensory issues, you can take the first step toward less stressful mealtimes and a more well-balanced diet for your child.

Get help for your picky eater

If you think your child may have a food sensory disorder, call 1-888-VIRTUA-3 to connect with the Virtua Pediatric Early Intervention Program (for kids from birth to age 3, no referral needed) or with a Virtua occupational therapist