All parents know the battles that often ensue over eating vegetables and other foods with young children. After all, we want our children to grow into strong, healthy adults someday. Because her mild cerebral palsy causes her to burn extra calories, though, it’s especially important that I help my daughter nourish her body enough throughout the day. Unfortunately, this proves to be an incredibly difficult task because her sensory sensitivity causes her to be an extremely picky eater with several food aversions. Her occupational therapist and I have really started to focus on her eating habits, though, and slowly but surely we’re making progress.
If you’re a parent of a child with a disability or sensory sensitivity that makes feeding them a variety of foods difficult, here are some tips I highly recommend:
1. Involve all the senses.
My daughter refuses to eat many foods because she fears them. However, her occupational therapist suggested we help her work towards eating new foods by involving all five senses through basic exposure therapy. Essentially, we encourage my daughter to explore new or feared foods with her senses. Although she may not eat mashed potatoes right now, we are making progress — she will allow the potatoes to sit on her plate and she will touch them with a fork or smell them for a few seconds. Although it’s a slow process, we’re excited about these small steps in the right direction.
2. Turn the food into art.
It’s funny, but apparently foods become a lot less scary when you’re turning them into art. My daughter has successfully touched more vegetables and fruits than ever before by creating edible artwork with her therapist. She once created a beautiful version of her favorite Disney character, Queen Elsa, with macaroni, blueberries, mashed potatoes, and food coloring. More recently, I’ve started haunting the internet for sites that provide creative food art ideas (thank you, Pinterest!)
3. Involve them in the cooking process.
You can also help expose your fearful children to new foods by inviting them to help you out in the kitchen. Since we use Dinnerly, a weekly meal kit service, I ask both of my daughters to help me unpack the box every Tuesday afternoon. We laugh while we put away the meats and produce, and my child gains small exposures to the vegetables she typically avoids. I also often invite my children to help with small steps in the cooking process, like measuring out ingredients or stirring the pot while something cooks. Although she’s still not eating everything we make, she is enjoying her time in the kitchen.
4. Combine their favorites with new items.
When all else fails, my daughter will always eat cheese. Luckily for me, cheese pairs well with so many other foods, so we’ve started doing this in hopes that she will eat it. I also read an interesting blog post that suggested mixing foods like regular pasta with zucchini noodles or making homemade veggie fries. Sometimes these ideas work; other times they don’t. But like anything else, it’s all about small steps.
I hope that eventually my little girl will start eating and loving vegetables and other foods as much as I do. For now, I am just encouraging her to eat period and exposing her to as many foods as I can in fun and exciting ways. At the end of the day, the most important thing we can do for children with sensory sensitivities or food aversions is to help them explore foods in a safe, inviting way without forcing anything. After all, there are always worse problems than making yet another peanut butter and jelly sandwich for that picky eater, am I right?