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Understanding Picky Eating: How Sensory Processing Shapes Your Child's Food Choices

A young Asian boy making a funny face as an adult tries to spoon feed him

As parents, we often find ourselves scratching our heads over our child's food preferences. One day they're all about macaroni and cheese, the next they're pushing it away like it's out of style. If you've ever wondered why your little one seems to have such particular tastes when it comes to food, you're not alone. The connection between sensory processing and picky eating might hold the answers you've been searching for.

Sensory Processing: The Gateway to Understanding Picky Eating

Every child explores the world through their senses: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling. But some children process sensory information differently, which can affect how they interact with their surroundings, including the foods they try.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) occurs when the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes through the senses. This can lead to overreactions, underreactions, or a combination of both to sensory stimuli. For some children, certain textures, tastes, smells, or even the appearance of food can trigger intense responses, making mealtimes a battleground.

The Link Between SPD and Picky Eating

Imagine sitting down to a meal where every bite feels like a culinary assault on your senses. For children with SPD, this scenario is a daily reality. Foods that may seem ordinary to us can be overwhelming or even aversive to them due to their heightened sensitivity to sensory input.

Texture Troubles

One of the most common issues for picky eaters with SPD is texture sensitivity. They may struggle with foods that are slimy, crunchy, or mushy, finding them uncomfortable or even gag-inducing. As a result, they may refuse to eat certain foods, limiting their diet to items that feel safe and familiar.

Taste Trials

Children with SPD may also experience taste sensitivity, making them highly selective about the flavors they'll tolerate. Bitter vegetables like broccoli or strong spices may be overwhelming to their sensitive taste buds, leading them to reject these foods outright.

Smell Sensitivities

The aroma of certain foods can be a dealbreaker for picky eaters with SPD. Strong or unfamiliar smells may trigger an instinctive reaction, causing them to refuse to even try the offending dish. This can be particularly challenging in social situations or when dining out.

A picky eating toddler with sensory processing issues

Visual Preferences

Believe it or not, the way food looks can also play a role in picky eating. Children with SPD may be put off by the appearance of certain foods, especially if they have a heightened sensitivity to visual stimuli. This can lead them to reject foods based solely on their appearance, regardless of taste or texture.

Overcoming Picky Eating Challenges

So, what can parents do to help their picky eater with sensory processing challenges? While there's no one-size-fits-all solution, there are effective strategies that can make mealtimes more manageable for both you and your child.

1. Respect Their Preferences

It's essential to acknowledge and respect your child's sensory preferences, even if they seem unusual or inconvenient. Pressuring them to eat foods that cause distress can backfire, reinforcing negative associations with mealtimes.

2. Offer Variety

While it's tempting to stick to a handful of "safe" foods, offering a variety of options can help broaden your child's palate over time. Start small by introducing new foods alongside familiar favorites, and be patient as they adjust to the unfamiliar tastes and textures.

3. Make Mealtimes Fun

Get creative with mealtimes to make them more enjoyable for your picky eater. Try serving food in different shapes or arranging it on their plate in a playful way. Involving them in meal preparation can also help build their confidence and curiosity about trying new foods.

4. Seek Professional Help

If your child's picky eating significantly impacts their health or quality of life, it may be worth seeking guidance from a pediatric feeding specialist or an occupational therapist who specializes in sensory processing issues. These experts can provide personalized strategies and support to help your child overcome their food challenges.

Conclusion: Supporting Our Picky Eaters

Picky eating is a common struggle for many parents, but for children with sensory processing challenges, it can be especially complex. By understanding the connection between sensory processing and picky eating, you can better support your child's unique needs and help them develop a healthier relationship with food. With patience, empathy, and a willingness to explore new approaches, mealtimes can become a source of joy and connection for the entire family.

A picture of the Build a Better Eater book by Patty Canton

Want to learn more about picky eating and sensory processing? Get the feeding coach-written short guidebook Build A Better Eater for tips to transform your picky eater into a brave taster of new foods!


A smiling young girl giving a thumbs up while eating a plateful of vegetables

All blog content shared through HealthSmart! Kids is for informational purposes only and not to be construed as medical advice. Always talk with your qualified health care provider for managing your health care needs.

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