Picky Eating and Sensory Eating Are NOT The Same! A Guide to Improving Feeding in Sensory Eaters

Today, Man took a bite of a carrot, chewed it, and swallowed!!!  I tried to remain calm on the outside; I didn’t want him to notice the amount of excitement, relief, hope, and importance I placed on that one single bite.  I didn’t want him to shrink under the pressure that I placed on his ability to take a bite of a carrot.

“Nice job, buddy!!  I’m really proud of you!  Did you like it?”

“Meh, it was ok…”

That was enough for me!  On the outside I maintained my calm demeanor, my “this was no big deal” face; but on the inside, I was celebrating like it was New Year’s!

Now, at this point you’re all probably thinking, “Wow, a bite of a carrot! She’s really got to check her brag-o-meter, because that sounds about as insignificant as watching television…”  But for us, this was HUGE.

I’ve ready many, many articles and blog posts about picky eaters.  They put forth an expanse of knowledge and make loads of professional suggestions. They also all miss one thing: there is an enormous difference between a “picky eater” and a “sensory eater.”  The valid suggestions these articles provide are for picky eaters, but a sensory eater is a different ball game altogether, and this is rarely if ever mentioned. I suspect that this leaves parents who have tried all the suggestions mentioned in the articles saddened, frustrated, and feeling like failures.

I recently wrote an article called, “Imagine Your Child With Sensory Processing Disorder.”  Imagine Your Child With Sensory Processing Disorder It highlighted many of the major aspects of dealing with SPD.  Sensory eating is one of these challenges.  What is sensory eating and why is it different from picky eating?  Picky eaters don’t like a variety of foods, much like the sensory eater, however, when they eat new foods it doesn’t cause a sensory overload.

What do I mean by an eating sensory overload?

It comes in a few different forms.  There is a sensitivity to textures, where children can only handle one texture, often smooth pureed foods.  They can eat yogurt, however hand them a bag of chips or a slice of turkey and they immediately begin to gag.  This is the most common sensory eating issue.  Less common, but equally challenging, are sensitivities to flavor and smell.  Man, has a sensitivity to flavor, I have seen him break out into a cold sweat, red faced, and teary eyed because a Starburst was “too sugary”.

What does this mean when eating?

It means that children would literally rather starve than put food in their mouths that might cause physical and/or mental pain.  One of the number one suggestions in every article on combating picky eating… “They get what they get or they don’t eat.  Eventually, they will be hungry enough to eat.”  The other variation of that suggestion, “They MUST try at least one bite of the new food that you give them.”  This is a suggestion that will NEVER. EVER. work for a child with sensory eating issues.  They see food as pain, and it doesn’t matter how hungry they are, they would rather starve than be in pain.  Wouldn’t you?  If you knew that every time you put certain foods in your mouth, it would make your feel as though your mouth was on fire, would you want to eat it?


Unfortunately, as time goes on, inevitable behaviors begin to develop.  It’s Pavlovian in nature, and they begin to fear foods and meal times.  Even if it’s a food that might not “hurt” them, they will begin to refuse to eat it.  They often don’t like to eat out at restaurants and they do not enjoy the social aspects of a meal, choosing to eat alone or engage in reading or watching an iPad to be able to get through a meal, rather than engaging in lively chit chat with friends and family.  Parents must provide constant reminders and prompts to get a child to complete each meal, every day.  This often lends an additional level of stress to food, eating, and mealtime.  Many children are uncommonly thin and vitamin deficient as well.  This provides another layer of fear that parents must try to avoid inflicting on their child.

Suddenly, it’s not just the body’s physiological reaction to the food, but also the behavioral and emotional stress that comes along with it.  Now, considering these factors, it becomes more obvious why there must be a differentiation between picky eating and sensory eating.  For years, I would read these articles and think to myself, “none of these strategies will work for my Man, he would just rather not eat.”  I would see other parent’s comments laced with sadness and frustration that their children had too, chosen not to eat.  It’s not as simple as being a picky eater; it’s not as simple as choosing to just suck it up and try a food that they might not end up liking.  For them, it’s knowing that a food might make them throw up or set their little tongue on fire; it’s about being made physically uncomfortable from food.



Here are some suggestions that come from both the parent in me and the Speech Pathologist:

1)      Most importantly, do not pressure your child!  There is already enough fear associated with eating that you don’t want to increase those fears.  As scary as it is to hear a diagnosis of “failure to thrive”, placing added pressures on them to eat will not help.


2)      Address their fears, discuss them openly, and validate, validate, validate!!  Let them know that you understand how hard it is for them to eat certain things and that’s ok!


3)      Make food fun!  Desensitizing them to foods is very important, so cook and bake with them often.  Also, do art or craft projects that involve playing with food.  Make chocolate pudding and crush up Oreo cookies to make “dirt”, then place gummy worms in the dirt, etc.  Let them get used to the textures on their hands first.


4)      When you feel they are ready, introduce new foods in small increments.  As your child gets older, his or her sensory system will naturally mature, however, the fear and maladaptive behaviors that they have developed over the years might remain.  To combat these fears, you must go slowly!  I recently implemented a chart system for Man and so far, it seems to be helping:


Monday: smell the food

Tuesday: kiss the food (or touch to lips)

Wednesday: lick the food

Thursday: hold a bite of food in their mouth

Friday: chew a bite and swallow

Saturday: REWARD, REWARD, REWARD!!!!!!!  For Man, it’s two ice cream sandwiches with lunch!

feeding train real

Feeding Chart (please pardon my lack of artistic and creative abilities).

After your child has successfully chewed and swallowed that initial bite, every day following they should take one bite of the new food for about a week, then the next week two bites, and so on until you feel they are eating an acceptable amount to incorporate into meals.

Now this sounds slow and laborious, and it is, but remember, they are fearful and many foods actually cause them physical discomfort.  Our goal is to decrease the physical discomfort and remove slowly lessen the fear.

A variation of this method is to use a “feeding train”.  Each compartment of the train contains foods that they like and then when they get to the caboose, it contains the new food.  The expectation that they interact with the food in incremental stages remains the same.


5)      The “trying plate” is another variation of this method.  Place new foods on the “trying plate” and allow them to take bites when they are ready.  This plate is separate from their breakfast/lunch/dinner plate.

trying plate

The Trying Plate!


These methods should be used at one meal per day, unless you feel that your child can handle it for two or even three meals per day.  I cannot stress enough these key points, no pressure and go slowly!!

Remember, our children are not just picky eaters, if they choose to starve rather than eat the food that you put in front of them you are not a failure!!!

9 thoughts on “Picky Eating and Sensory Eating Are NOT The Same! A Guide to Improving Feeding in Sensory Eaters

  1. Excellent post and you very clearly differentiated between the two. We have a picky eater and some night he refuses supper (even if it’s something he’s eaten plenty of times) and would rather go hungry. I love your tips!

  2. I love your post. Have beem looking for a differentiation on eating for a while. There is one thing I do not agree with “As your child gets older, his or her sensory system will naturally mature”. This is not true. When growing older I changed my behaviour around food sensitivity and learned strategies in hiding food, sharing food that i didn’t like with others and of course avoiding it all together. Healing the sensory impairment is something that doesn’t get talked about. People still believe it cannot be healed. But therapies like qigong sensory training work really well for healing the sensory. Give it a try.

  3. Thank you so much! I am going to try this! I feel like crying every night when my son refuses all the foods I make him. This article makes me feel less alone and more hopeful.

  4. You explained this perfectly. I’ve struggled with a sensory eater for years. We started these feeding therapy strategies and they absolutely work. But it does take time. There were what felt like endless hours of making food and then throwing it all out. I promise your efforts will be rewarded. Your child needs your help. At age 2 my son wouldn’t even kiss a strawberry without gagging and now (age 6) he eats a handful of them for breakfast every morning. Success! He now eats more foods than his picky little brother. Another tip would be to find a texture that your child is comfortable with & start there. Example: crunch textures, crackers, goldfish. Try crispy bacon, freeze dried strawberries or snap peas. Eventually you’ll be able to get to the real stuff once the taste develops. Same goes for fast food French fries to homemade potatoes. Just takes time.

  5. This is a great post. I love the idea of the “learning plate” and the chart. The explanation is so helpful. We feed hundreds of children a day and we see many eating dis-orders — it’s disheartening. Good luck with Man. Sounds like you are on a roll!

  6. Hi.
    I have a daughter aged 6 with obvious sensory issues. Mostly affecting food, very limited number of things she will eat and certain clothes are a no go.

    She will eat cereal, bread, toast, prawn crackers and cinammon raisin bagels. She likes plain chocolate, no caramel, cheese and onion crisps. That is it.

    Here is the hard part. In Ireland, we do not have many supports. We have been to a top child psychologist who discharged her, claiming she looks happy and healthy and sees no issues. We have been to Enable Ireland, a charity for children with difficulties, they refused to admit her. We are seeing a speech and language therapist who works wonders, but she receeds afyer the visit and will not do the things she does with her outside of their session.
    We have been to an Occupational Therapist. She discovered she had GI conditions and treated her for that and her work was good, but we cannot afford to continue seeing the OT.

    To give an example of how extreme ot is, when she was very small and eating small bits of rice, pur eldest daughter gave her a small spoon of spaghetti hoops and she cried and cried and gagged.

    If you could provide any tips or point me in a direction that could assist with this, I would be extremely grateful and appreciative.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this,

    Philip O’Donohoe.

  7. Pingback: Strategies for Cooking for Picky Eaters & Restricted Diets | Add Salt & Serve

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