Children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) often have textural issues or poor motor skills that can interfere with how and what they will eat. Conditions like a high gag reflex, tactile defensiveness or poor oral-motor issues (mechanics of eating, such as tongue and jaw movement, chewing and swallowing) and motor planning (steps involved in eating, such as picking up food, bringing up to the mouth, etc.).
As well, average children are able to move from liquids to mushy to solids to pieces of normal proportioned foods as they feel comfortable. Children with SPD often can’t get past the mushy stage with these issues standing in the way, resulting in them sticking to foods that are softer and easier to dissolve in the mouth.
Research has shown that it can take presenting a food 30 times just to get a ‘typical’ child interested in it, with many more attempts after that just to feel like trying it. The process takes even longer for children struggling with sensory and/or motor issues. That can add up to a lot of tries, and a lot of meals.
The following list is comprised of suggestions to inspire your child to experience food, as well as helpful suggestions practiced by nutritionists and occupational therapists during SPD therapy:
a) Eliminate anything artificial and replace it with ‘real’ food. Get rid of anything with additives or artificial colors, flavors, or dyes, and replace them with natural, raw versions of those foods. The best way to get your child to start eating what they’re given is to ensure that there are no ‘bad’ alternatives to opt for.
b) Talk about where food comes from. As with any child, simply telling your SPD child to eat something because it’s good for them isn’t going to fly. Make the foods a little more exciting by talking about where they come from and how they’re grown.
c) Show where food comes from. Take your child to a farm or farmer’s market to see firsthand where the foods you’re trying to get her to eat come from. See if the farmer will answer questions, or even allow the child to plant, weed, or harvest.
d) Grow your own garden. Sometimes planting and growing foods in your own garden inspires children to try something new. There’s something exciting about planting a seed, and watching it grow into something we can eat.
e) Get your child to help plan meals. Obviously, children, aren’t going to choose everything the way an adult would, but give them a vote. “Should we have peas or carrots with supper?” or “What kind of rice/pasta should we have?” This gives the child a small sense of being in control of what she’s eating. A great tool for helping fussy eaters, particularly those living with Autism or SPD, with meal planning is The Eating Game invented by Canadian educator, Jean Nicol. Created in conjunction with the American and Canadian Food Guides, it helps children put together wonderful, healthy meals and snacks. With Mom and Dad’s help, of course.
f) Kids in the kitchen. Kids love to help out, so assign a special job to do, or, better still, see what the child can do to help prepare dinner. See the pride in his eyes when everyone says, “You helped make this? Yum!” And it may even encourage him to taste it, since he helped prepare it.
g) Encourage ‘feeling’ the meal. As with other new situations, allow your child with SPD to feel her food. Tell her to smell, poke, squish, or otherwise interact with it. This may not be the best action to take in a restaurant or with dinner guests, but, at home, let her know it’s okay to check her food out if that’s what it takes for her to feel better about it.
h) Have a ‘spit bowl’. Again, this may not be an acceptable action around guests or in a restaurant, but if you teach the art of discretion at the same time, it can work. A ‘spit bowl’ is something your child can eject food into if he finds it unpalatable. The key here is to encourage him to give the food a try with the option of eliminating it. At first, there will be more spat out than swallowed. However, eventually, you may notice more staying in.
i) Have a ‘one bite’ rule. After the ‘spit bowl’ phase, the next step is applying a rule where everyone has to try at least one taste of everything on the plate. If it helps, have a food that Mom, Dad, or siblings may struggle with too. That way, your SPD child sees that other people have textural or taste issues too but are still willing to try. You can increase the size or number of bites once this is tolerated.
j) Make tiny changes to a food jag. A food jag is a food that a child gets stuck on, like pasta, rice or chicken nuggets. If you change one tiny thing about their favorite foods, such as shape (eg: cutting a sandwich in a different shape or serving a different shaped pasta), color (a veggie pasta that’s a different color), or texture (put tiny chunks of fruit into yogurt or apple sauce) can help increase tolerance for trying a different foods.
k) Allow him to choose one meal each week that is entirely his. Again, giving kids the power to choose is an amazing way to help children with SPD. If they know there’s a night when they can get exactly what they want (within reason, of course), they are more willing to follow the rules during the rest of the week.
l) Hide the good stuff in what they like. Make smoothies with berries, protein powder and sweeter veggies. Add iron-rich vegetables in sauces/dips the child likes. Bake ‘brain friendly’ cookies with flax seed oil, seeds, nuts, berries and other good stuff. After awhile, you figure out what you can hide successfully.
It can be a real challenge feeding children with SPD. But once you understand his specific eating issues, and the right strategies to cope with them, you can create a plan to help teach him to enjoy eating.