The topic of eating and nutrition is a tricky one for our sensory kiddos, and for their parents. With school beginning again, there are all kinds of articles on packing “cute” lunches.
Really? Great ideas, but who has the time?
If your kids are like mine, they are extremely “picky” eaters (some nutritionists do not approve of that term, but it is very descriptive in this case). They lean towards carbohydrates almost exclusively, focusing on bread, crackers, pasta, and rice. My youngest, who used to love fruit and some vegetables, chooses to avoid these foods altogether now. She is also no longer eating pizza, hot dogs, or regular yogurt (just got her to eat frozen yogurt tubes again). This is incredibly frustrating for us. I begin to feel inadequate as a parent, that I’m not providing for my child (even though I keep presenting these foods and other new ones over and over and over!).
It helps to think about what might be going on in her toddler brain. I cannot deny that there is a behavioral component, given that developmentally she is in the process of discovering her own voice, and wants to be in control of her own choices. She is moving from toddler to preschooler, and with this change comes new experiences, which are sometimes scary for her (such as starting a new preschool, sleeping in her own bed, etc.). Along with this we’ve seen an increase in defiance and tantrums. It is one of those developmental periods that you hope will pass quickly; although intellectually I know it is a necessary part of her growing up and developing her own sense of self.
From a sensory processing perspective, not only are her taste buds changing as she gets older, but some of the textures and temperatures of foods she used to enjoy are now somewhat uncomfortable in her mouth. Fruits, vegetables, and meat all have varying textures and are served at different temperatures. For a child with sensory issues, this must be overwhelming to her sensitive wiring. Her brain is working overtime to process all of this input. Even varying colors of foods can be challenging, as she tends to shy away from all colors except for white foods.
The solution: there is no easy one. We continue presenting new (and old) foods on a “learning plate” – a plate we place in front of her with various foods, separate from her eating plate. We tell her she can look at the foods, smell them, touch them, and taste them, but she is not required to eat them. We also have a nutrition consult this week. In addition, the occupational therapist plans to work on desensitizing the mouth and palate using various oral-motor exercises (e.g. using a vibrating “bug” or other vibration on the outside of the cheeks before meals, and using a soft brush on the inside of the cheeks). This has worked well on my older daughter, who agreed to eat salad for the first time in over a year! She has also tried other new foods lately.
We have some goals for our family mealtimes. We are consuming less meat as a family, focusing mainly on poultry and fish, and lots of vegetarian dishes. We have tried to buy more organic produce either at the grocery store or at the farmer’s market (although this is not practical all the time, especially given the high prices). We have snuck in some gluten-free pastas and breads, and the girls don’t seem to notice the difference. My main goal for now, however, is to make sure the lunch boxes are returned home with some evidence of consumption, and that my daughter relies less on Pediasure and Horizon vanilla milks to get her through the day.
Here are some links to some oral-motor tools to try (Amazon is my go-to place):