Strategies For When Sensory Needs Means They Won’t Eat

I’m Jo Grace: a Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist and Founder of The Sensory Projects in this series of 10 articles I am going to share some of my passion for understanding the sensory world with you. 

In my last article, we explored the reality of eating difficulties prompted by sensory differences. I encourage you if you have not read it to click back and read that article first as for any of these strategies for sensory needs to work you need to have a good sense of what the difficulties are that are being faced. Suffice to say here as a reminder that this is very much NOT about children being naughty and fussy and everything about them, and the adults who love them, being frightened and overwhelmed. As a professional coming into this, you have a choice between joining in with the pressure and the fear and standing back and offering possible ways out. I will say up front that I have no magic wands, these are just things I have found useful in the past when supporting children (and adults) who have struggled to eat because of sensory processing differences. 

Sensory Needs: All or Nothing 

Often when you are supporting a child who struggles with eating conversations with their family become all or nothing, the question is “Have they eaten?” and the answer is yes or no. If you answer yes the family member breathes a sigh of relief, pressure has been taken off them. If you answer no the family member draws breath in and fastens their resolve for the battle they know they have to face when they get home. Carrying on with this all-or-nothing narrative ignores the complexity of what the child is facing and can make it feel like we are getting nowhere. 

Try breaking eating down into its sensory components, there are the smells of eating, the tastes of eating, the sound of eating, the look of food, and the texture of food. To be able to eat a person has to be able to manage all of these things. Suppose I asked you to do five things you find difficult and asked you to do them all at once, it would be a bit much, wouldn’t it? But what if I gave you a chance to practice them one by one? Food can be looked at in photos – that do not pose any threat of an expectation of consumption, it can be watched on cooking shows, and in adverts (often the junk food children are willing to eat is the food they’ve encountered visually in a non-threatening way multiple times through adverts). Food can be played with outside away from any environment that suggests a requirement to eat, so that it is touched and felt. Things that are not food but share textural similarities with food can be explored tactile and then gradually blended with food. The smells of food can be offered without the sight or feel of food (opaque aware boxes with food inside, pinged in the microwave to release the scent and then opened just a fraction). The sounds of eating can be made at other times – the monster in the story could chomp upon an apple, and they can be heard on sound clips accessed online.  

What if at pick-up time you proudly told that anxious parent “He’s done well today, he’s touched two different types of food and smelt one, we even did some chomping noises together when we were playing on the rope bridge at playtime”? You turn that all-or-nothing conversation into a journey, a journey you are on with that family – because it is not just the child who feels alone and frightened when faced across the table by the loved one who usually protects them but who is asking them to eat, it is the adult too – they need a friend like you. 

Bold Sensory Strategies For Eating

Sometimes when children (and adults) struggle with eating through sensory reasons people try to start with bland soft foods, as they would with a child (or adult) who was nervous about new foods. This can work, but do you remember how in article 8 in this series I explained that sensing is a skill we develop, there are early (easier) parts to this skill and later (harder) parts to this skill. In that article I gave the example of babies and sight, we know they see light and dark better than they see colour, this is because it is easier to understand what is light and what is dark than to understand what is yellow and that is green. The big bold contrasts were the easier option, and the subtler more nuanced gentle aspects were the harder option. So it can seem counterintuitive but when you think about it from the position of sensory development it makes sense: sometimes children who struggle to eat due to sensory differences respond better to big bold flavours or sensations than they do to seemingly ‘easier’ food. Try crunchy crisps or toasted pitta bread, try bold flavours- salty, spicy. At this point it becomes relevant to tell you that I was one of these children, I limited my diet to mostly beige food (at least that takes the visual stimulation out of it, one less sensory task to manage) and repeatedly ate the same foods, often packaged foods as they are more predictable than home-cooked foods. I can pinpoint when I began to eat a wider range of foods to a moment at university (notice that this was a moment when the decision was all in my hands and there were no external pressures on what I should do whatsoever) when I considered that pickled onions might taste similar to the pickled onion crisps I regularly ate for my lunch. My starting point for eating vegetables was pickled onions! 

Grazing Boards

Providing graze boards is a great way of taking the pressure off eating. Eating is pressurised in all sorts of ways and two of these ways are time and place, we are expected to eat at particular times in particular places, and although the time and place of a taste experience do not affect the sensory pressure of it, that there is this requirement is another thing added to the list of things the child is being asked to do. Earlier in this article I asked you to imagine being asked to learn five difficult things all at once, now suppose I want you to do that and to also do a handful of relatively easy things at the same time. Even though these things are not a part of the problem it is still easier to tackle the problem without them there. In recognising what a lot we are asking of people who struggle with eating because of sensory needs reasons we can understand that if we can find any way at all to make it easier for them, even if it is not very much we are going to do it.  

Before I continue here I just want to dart back to one of the duff bits of advice given as an example at the start of this article, it is a classic, it goes to the tune of “just don’t feed them, once they’re hungry they will eat”. Parents receiving this advice despair because they know it is not true, their children do not become any more willing to eat when hungry, because the reason they were refusing to eat in the first place was never anything to do with hunger, and because if they have sensory needs differences it is likely that one of the senses that is working differently is their child’s interoceptive sense, this is the sensory system that feels whether you are hungry or not, so if you cannot feel that you are hungry being hungry isn’t going to make any difference. So providing graze boards is not a way of supporting the making them wait until their hungry line of thinking. 

A graze board is exactly what it sounds like, a board, or plate, or tray, with a few things to graze upon. I would advise putting very little on there. A child faced with a plate of food they must finish is faced with a mammoth task. A single morsel is eaten, and completed, very quickly, there is a lot less pressure there. A graze board is left out, and the child is made aware of it and told they are allowed to eat from it, but is not asked to eat from it, no one pushes them towards it, it is simply available to them. When starting with a grazing board you have to remember you are trying to create the opposite of the pressurised environment of sitting down to eat. You might even opt to not mention it to the child at all, simply put it somewhere that they will encounter it.  

Another great tip for starting with a grazing board is to not put too many different things on it, and if the child (or adult) has food they favour make sure that is there, even if it is junk food. Say, I know a child who will only eat chocolate buttons. I might start a grazing board for them that has three chocolate buttons, a frozen pea, a small salted cracker, and a slice of sausage on it. I would expect the chocolate buttons to be gone instantly. This is great, it means they have found the board, and they will have had the experience that when they eat from it they are not told off. So they know there is a board, they know it has food on it, and they know they can eat that food. I would not expect any of the other food to go missing for a long while. I might top it up with a chocolate button or two just to keep the board in their mind. But maybe after a while, once they were returning to the board quite often, I’d stop that. And just leave the other items there, will they get curious? Maybe I choose a slice of sausage that is similar in appearance to the buttons, it is round, thin, a dark brown colour…. (I know the mention of a frozen pea above might have sounded strange, it’s there as it’s been one of the things I’ve had the most success with when establishing graze boards, the coldness of the pea protects against the smell and taste, the hardness of it gives bold feedback to the jaw and it is small and easily eaten, plus it is healthy!) 

Over time you would hope to be able to provide things on the board that the child was happy to eat, you provide eating in a way that fits with how the child needs to eat (not how society deems we must eat – remember that originally we were animals that grazed, the ritual of sitting down to three meals a day with the expected social conventions of doing so is a relatively recent invention, it is not necessary to eat, it’s just tradition), and you top the board up regularly so that over the course of a day the child eats a wide range of foods they enjoy and that provide nutrition to their body.  

Of course with all of the strategies listed here, and the many more you’ll find online, the person still needs to eat. With any other situation, you could stop asking them to do it all together and build them up slowly, but with food it is different. So think sensory needs. Can you help them to escape some of the challenges even if you cannot help them escape all of them? Can they eat away from others, so they only have to deal with their eating, not everyone else? Can their food be blended so they do not have to deal with texture? Could it be eaten cold, or even frozen, to mitigate smell and taste? Would they cope better with a meal replacement drink (not one of the diet ones but one intended to be a full meal)? These might not be strategies you can use all the time, but even just a bit to give them a break could help. If they have a preferred food celebrate that and avoid the temptation to doctor it. I have been there! (Slicing open chips and trying to hide vitamin pills inside) It is such a big gamble because if they no longer consider that food is safe because it might have been tampered with, they lose the calories it could have provided.  

Eating and the senses is a very complicated things, this article has barely scratched the surface, but I hope it will help. Take off the pressure, be playful, create space, and respect how big of an ask it is. You are doing a brilliant job! 

I hope you have enjoyed this series of ten articles exploring the sensory needs world in all its wonders and possibilities. Do come and connect with me online the connection links for my social media accounts can be found on my website and if you want to re-read any of the earlier articles remember they are all available online to explore and share with families.  

Explore more in this series on sensory needs here:

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