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Picky Eating 101
Picky eating can disrupt more than just nutritional intake, but also feelings towards food, mealtimes, and the overall social experience of eating. Learning to eat involves social and emotional factors as well as the development of fine oral motor skills (5). The concept of picky eating is very vague and encompasses many variations of issues. Refusal of foods can result for many reasons ranging from food texture, lack of focus or routine, unfamiliarity, and more. You may feel really unsure how to navigate texture issues to help your child, but read on for some great guidance. And when you’re done, be sure to check out my Build A Better Plate post for a great strategy to know your kid is getting the right mix of nutrients.
To help your picky eater handle texture issues, it is best to begin with understanding the terminology surrounding this topic. When considering oral motor skills, the avoidance of food or activities using the mouth is characterized by oral defensiveness (2). This response is categorized by negative reactions to sensory stimuli in the mouth, a common non-food example being brushing your teeth. Similarly, sensory over responsivity is another term used to describe an overactive response to tactile stimuli. Both qualities are correlated to increased picky eating patterns and food selectivity. It is important to now distinguish oral defensiveness and sensory over responsivity from food neophobia. Food neophobia, or the unwillingness to try new foods, is not related to food texture but simply unfamiliarity of food items (3).
Characteristics of sensory over responsivity are prevalent in children with developmental disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder and fragile X syndrome (2). However, issues with sensory stimuli in food are also observed in typically developing children predominantly from ages two through five. The main food applications involving sensory stimuli include smell, taste, texture, and temperature. Even further, foods with tough, slimy, or lumpy texture can be difficult to manipulate in the mouth are more likely to rejected (4).
Food for Thought: Texture Issues
When trying to improve your child’s relationship with food, it is important to consider not only the picky eating behaviors but the source. Why is the food being rejected? If your picky eater has troubles accepting varying food textures, first consider factors outside the kitchen. Tactile sensitivity, or dislike to specific touch sensations, is correlated to increased dislike to texture stimuli in the mouth (4). Several texture characteristics can be considered including smooth, slimy, rough, hard, soft, or even reactions to temperatures (4). Consider the textural components of experiences outside the kitchen such as your child’s favorite comforting items or their avoidance of activities with specific sensory stimuli. Some examples outside the kitchen include the feeling of grass, soft cotton balls, or slimy finger paints. Does your picky eater show a pattern favoring or rejecting certain sensory stimuli?
After reflecting on external factors, the next step in developing a plan to help your picky eater handle texture issues is to create a Food Preference Inventory (3). A Food Preference Inventory is a scored list including offered and consumed foods within the five food groups. To do this at home, create two lists that reflect your picky eaters’ dietary patterns. First, form a list of foods your picky eater commonly accepts. Try to include items in each food group: fruit, vegetable, dairy, protein, and grain categories. Next, create a list with commonly offered foods that are rejected by your picky eater. Finally, analyze the two lists comparing foods and qualities related to texture. Evaluate how you primarily cook these foods and if commonly accepted or rejected foods have similar textural stimuli such as crunchy or chewy.
Expand Palate Preferences
Navigating food sensory sensitivity can be tricky, but there are methods of expanding your picky eaters’ palate by helping them handle texture issues. Creating a sensory play time experience allows your child to gain familiarity with new textures or temperatures (5). There are many low-cost ways to implement sensory play time at home including finger paints, splashing water, or diggings in dirt (5). Another great example with food items is filling a large bin with lentils or rolled oats. While playing, encourage your child to scoop, measure, or search for hidden items with their hands. Sensory play time can also be brought into the kitchen, simply by touching new foods or unfavored textures with no focus on consumption. Including more sensory play time can be simple yet effective if presenting a range of texture sensations, particularly ones your picky eater tends to avoid.
If your picky eater has a few favorite food items, it is also possible to expand their palate preferences by food bridges. Food bridges are a method used to expand dietary intake by offering foods of similar color or texture to those your child prefers (1). For instance, if sweet potato is an accepted food by your picky eater next try introducing pumpkin, carrot, or other squash (1). Carrots, like many vegetables, can be prepared in many ways to mimic the characteristics of already accepted food items. Whether served mashed, boiled and diced, baked, or raw there are a wide variety of texture options to consider for best acceptance of a given food. When trying to form a food bridge, consider which preparation method would best resemble the tactile and visual characteristics of the food your picky eater already enjoys.
With a wide variety of food options and cooking methods it can be unclear how to prepare a meal for your family that your picky eater will also enjoy. The final texture of a dish can be influenced before the cooking even begins based on food source. When choosing between canned, frozen, and fresh produce, the frozen and fresh options are best when aiming to avoid overly soft textures. Likewise, dry or moist cooking methods create differing textures to foods. Dry cooking methods include those cooking with oils and fats: sauteing, pan-frying, broiling, grilling, roasting, and baking. While moist cooking methods often produce softer textures by poaching, simmering, boiling, and steaming. Each cooking method produces differing food textures and sensory stimuli. Additionally, the act of chopping foods instead of leaving them whole can change the stimuli of food. A great example are tiny grape tomatoes, when sliced the bursting sensation is eliminated (2). The unless food preparation styles may seem overwhelming, however, the abundance of choices also allows foods to tailored to you picky eaters’ preferences.
Plate presentation by modifying food combinations can also influence acceptability of foods. It can be helpful to separate mixed food textures and serve a meal as pieces rather than one cohesive dish (2). Your picky eater may be more inclined to eat differing textures if they are not combined in one bite. Consider chicken salad or tacos. Each meal contains a mixed variety of textures and sensations as the food is presented as one item. To break them down, serve crunchy celery and carrots separately from chicken salad and create a taco plate filled with bite size portions of each taco ingredient (2).
When helping your picky eater handle texture issues, keep in mind picky eating behaviors are considered part of a typical development. Food selectivity can decrease with age, exposure, and improvement of oral motor skills (3). In efforts to improve your child’s diet, it is important to evaluate their picky eating behavior for the source. Texture and sensory issues surrounding food can present many issues at mealtimes, but there are methods to improve sensory responses and create meals with more favored texture profiles. While practicing any tips aimed to help your picky eater, remember to keep a positive environment surrounding food and continue to offer accepted foods along with new or unfavored ones.
Helping your child with picky eating and feeling confident in trying new foods can feel overwhelming, in my book Blissful Meals Holiday Guide, you’ll find my proven framework for increasing the foods your kiddo tries and LOVES! If you’re looking to get more customized support with your child’s picky eating, schedule a complimentary strategy call here.
(2) Cermak SA, Curtin C, Bandini LG. Food selectivity and sensory sensitivity in children with autism spectrum disorders. J Am Diet Assoc. 2010;110(2):238-46.
(3) Johnson, S. L., Moding, K. J., & Bellows, L. L. (2018). Children’s Challenging Eating Behaviors: Picky Eating, Food Neophobia, and Food Selectivity. Pediatric Food Preferences and Eating Behaviors, 73-92. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-811716-3.00004-x
(4) Nederkoorn C, Jansen A, Havermans RC. Feel your food. The influence of tactile sensitivity on picky eating in children. Appetite. 2015;84:7-10.
(5) Rowell, K., McGlothlin, J., & Morris, S. E. (2015). Helping your child with extreme picky eating: A step-by-step guide for overcoming selective eating, food aversion, and feeding disorders. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.