When Picky Eating is really Problem Feeding
Mealtime should be an enjoyable time for families to bond and nourish their bodies. Unfortunately, if you have a child who is a picky eater meal times are anything but fun. Picky eating usually starts somewhere after the first birthday and can continue through life. So, what constitutes a picky eater?
A Picky Eater
- Has a repertoire of 30 foods or fewer
- Wants to eat only certain foods for days at a time
- Will switch to other foods and eat them over and over again, but will eventually want to go back to their former favorites
- Doesn’t like foods to touch one another
- Will not eat certain foods unless they are a certain temperature and/or consistency
A Problem Feeder
But what if it is more severe than just picky eating? Well then you might have a problem feeder on your hands. A problem feeder would be a child who:
- Has a repertoire of less than 20 foods
- Will eat only foods like deep fried chicken fingers, hot dogs, pasta, and pizza and appears to be addicted to them
- Will begin to eat a food and will request only this food, eat it for several months, then switch to something else
- Has a strong phobic reaction to new foods and will often throw a tantrum, scream, kick and/or refuse to eat
- Rejects an entire food group, such as vegetables or fruits
- Does not want to touch food
With problem feeders, feeding was never easy, even from infancy. Some typical warning signs for a problem feeder might be poor latch or a hard time with bottles. They might struggle to finish meals or have a hard time transitioning from a bottle to a cup. Problem feeders, as they get older, might appear to not enjoy eating at all or actually appear to be scared of their food. One problem that almost all problem feeders share is weak facial muscles. Weak facial muscles will then present as delays in speech. Speaking and eating are controlled by the same muscles so if they have weak facial muscles then both speech and eating are going to be affected.
A child who has a brain imbalance, like we talked about in our other behavior blogs, will also present with sensory processing disorder, at least to some degree. A sensory compromised child is one who either has an over or under active sensory system. The most commonly affected sensory systems are smell and taste, which obviously are directly related to eating. A child who has an over active sensory system craves more sensory input and might eat more than usual and will most likely gravitate toward spicy foods or foods that are more “grown up”. On the flip side, a child who has an under active sensory system is easily overwhelmed by sensory input. For these kids clothing, crowds (even small crowds), bright lights and loud noises can all be unsettling. Then think about adding food to these situations and they will become totally overwhelmed! Children with overactive sensory systems may avoid food because of the way it looks or feels or they may spit it out as they chew because the texture is changing. The sight of some foods might even make them gag or throw up. These are the kids who insist on eating the same foods everyday, day in and day out. How these kids react to food, depends on the severity of their brain imbalance. Remember, problem eaters are not trying to ruin your nice family meal or hurt your feelings when they refuse to try something. Their behaviors are not intentional.
What Can I Do Myself?
So how can we help our kids with sensory issues in regards to food? First, try to determine which sense(es) are the most under or over stimulated. Second, start on a good probiotic. When your child has a poor diet, lacking in variety, it has an impact on the diversity of the bacteria in the gut. (Read up on the brain-gut connection if you haven’t already.) Then try one of the following “tricks”:
- Proprioception: our ability to feel ourselves in space, what makes us feel grounded. A child with poor proprioception is not aware of their own body and this will cause them to feel anxious and unsafe in situations where there is a lot of sensory stimulation, like the family table.
- This is over 90% of the sensory input a child gets for brain development. It’s a BIG DEAL! Almost all of it comes from movement of the spine. So if a child has a spine problem and does not get it fixed completely it affects all of the other senses!!! This is where pediatric chiropractic comes in. Safe, effective, and gentle. We’re always here to help find doctors for you in your area.
- Try putting a step stool under the child’s feet while they are eating.
- Try having a picnic on the floor or eat around the coffee table.
- Make, or ask a crafty friend to make, a pad for the child’s seat that has a foot rest built into it (like a foot hammock).
Smell and Taste
- Hypersensitive- bland foods (potatoes, rice, grains, millet, quinoa, corn, pasta, “naked” steamed veggies and plain chicken.)
- Make ice pops from pureed fruits and veggies (think frozen smoothies). Freezing will help desensitize the palate and allows the child to try more foods.
- Hyposensitive- try adding strong spices to food (cinnamon, chiles, curry, turmeric, vanilla, etc. Add onion, peanut butter and almond butter to help stimulate the sense of taste and smell.)
- If your child doesn’t like to touch food with her hands or will pull away from a plate of food that is placed in front of her. She might gag when touching food or while eating. This child probably doesn’t like having a messy face either. This child might also play with their food just to stay engaged during meal time.
- Try “food mittens” so they don’t have to touch the food before they eat it.
- Introduce different textures gradually. Whichever “feel” your child likes, try that one first. Soft, try ice cream. Smooth, try chicken. Bumpy, try vegetables. Rough, try nuts and nut butters.
- To help with a dislike of food on their face, try thickening foods up so they aren’t so messy; think hard boiled eggs v.s. sunny side up, or oatmeal v.s. Cold cereal with milk.
- Take some time or set up a recorder to help you notice how loud meal time might be at your home; chairs sliding across the floor, TV or radio blaring, siblings running or fighting, dishes clattering, everyone talking over one another… this is overwhelming to a child who has auditory processing disorder. Here is how to help them:
- Dim the lighting, turn off the TV and the radio, turn off the ringer on your cell phone; this will help increase your child’s attention span and comfort level throughout the meal which will improve digestion. REMOVE ALL SCREENS FROM OR NEAR THE TABLE!! (This should be done anyway.)
- At school this can be particularly challenging so talk to the school and the person in charge of lunch and ask if your child can sit in the area with the least noise and distraction.
- At home you can consider employing the “talking stick” where a spoon or other object is passed from person to person and only the person with the stick can talk.
- For a child with visual processing disorder the whole meal ritual is overwhelming; the table setting, the glasses, silverware, and the food. So think minimal to help these kids.
- Limit items on the table to only what is needed. Keep serving dishes on the counter.
- Allow the child with the sensory issue to be seated first.
- Keep portions small. The smaller the size the less visually distracting.
- Try a green table cloth or placemat, this color is supposed to be calming.
- Contrasting colors are a good idea; example, white plate with green table cloth. The white plate will help your child more easily distinguish the color and texture of each food.
- Colored forks will help your child visually process the foods on a white plate.
- Get rid of fluorescent lighting. Use natural lighting whenever possible.
We hope this shed some light on some of the issues surrounding mealtimes with a picky eater or a problem feeder. If you have more questions or concerns about your child’s eating habits or their health come in and ask us. We are knowledgeable about supplements and probiotics, and can definitely help with the subluxations that exacerbate sensory processing issues.