Most parents are familiar with the mealtime struggle, but when does picky eating cross over into a true sensory issue, or physical food sensitivity? One local RD and Nutritionist who works with individuals with autism sheds light on when parents should pick their battles.
Contributor: Robert Trombley, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Bancroft
It’s nearing bedtime and your child has yet to eat a bite of dinner. You’re desperate and begin pleading with him to ingest a single morsel of chicken, veggies or pasta. You’re willing to throw in the towel and allow him a bowl of sugary cereal or a couple handfuls of Goldfish crackers just so you can turn the kitchen lights out and move on to the bedtime routine. When he even refuses these old standby favorites, he falls asleep hungry. Just like two other nights this week.
Sound familiar? Breathe a sigh of relief – you are not alone! In fact, the majority of parents will inevitably encounter bouts of pickiness as children crave more independence and control over their meals. Picky eating is completely normal, and, while frustrating for Mom and Dad, usually nothing to worry about as kids often outgrow their selectiveness.
However, for kids with autism and other sensory processing issues, extreme pickiness can cross over into a true food sensitivity, often as a result of common coinciding physical conditions such as acid reflux, gastritis or irritable bowel syndrome. But how can you tell the difference between a picky eater and a problem eater? And, how can parents keep the peace at the dinner table and keep their families well fed?
As a Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist at Bancroft, where we serve children and adults with autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities, I know how tricky it can be to properly identify and accommodate all different types of tastes. The good news both picky and problem eating can be overcome with time, trial and error.
If you’re struggling at mealtime and have already ruled out any possible medical conditions, check the below list to determine whether your child is experiencing picky or problem eating:
Picky eaters will:
- Eat a variety (30 or more) types of food
- Eat at least one food from each texture or food group
- Tolerate new foods on the plate
- Eventually regain a food lost to burnout
- Add a new food with 15-25 attempts
Problem eaters will:
- Eat fewer than 20 types of food
- Refuse entire categories of food texture (all soft foods or all crunchy foods, for example)
- Meltdown when presented with an unfamiliar food
- Never regain taste for a food after burnout (or, once he’s sick of apple slices, he’s never touching them again).
- Have trouble adding new foods even after 25 attempts
The solution in both cases is similar. At Bancroft, we encourage parents to identify commonalities (either color, texture, flavor or shape) among a child’s preferred foods and begin to incorporate new choices prepared similarly. For example, if a child will only eat sweet food, allow him to dip veggies or crackers into honey or sweetened yogurt. Or if he’ll only tolerate soft foods, bake pears or peaches until they reach the consistency of baby food and allow him to taste on his own terms. The familiar flavor or texture makes the new food less intimating, and a child is more likely to try it.
While these steps can seem tedious and frustrating for parents, small efforts can make a world of difference for picky and problem eaters. Remember it can take more than 25 tries for a child to enjoy a new food – so be patient! As long as you’ve ruled out medical issues or allergies, even the most sensory sensitive child can learn to enjoy new tastes.