Self-Care Chronicles: Nutrition and Eating for Sensory Issues
In this article: We explore foods known to reduce sensory meltdowns and why they work, as well as helpful strategies to promote independent feeding and healthy eating habits among children, teens, and adults with sensory processing issues.
Eating is a Full Sensory Experience
“Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.” —Genesis 8:20-21 NIV
Welcome back to another installation of the Self-Care Chronicles! It is no surprise that children, or anyone really, can be picky eaters. But, what if they aren’t picky? What if it is something much deeper that causes these protests during mealtime? Even God has his preferences of smells when we study Old Testament sacrifice requirements! There are so many reasons to enjoy or hate particular foods, but eating with sensory processing issues includes details beyond “like” or “do not like”; eating is a full sensory experience. Certain foods touching can give an uneasy feeling, the visual shapes and colours can be off putting, smells can become overwhelming, and touch—both by hand or on the tongue—can be downright gross. Oh, and this isn’t to mention taste!
When feeding a child with sensory processing issues we must consider all of these things (and more!) on top of the nutritional value. After much research, there are some foods believed to reduce meltdowns and other stressors. In this article we shall discuss which foods to add to your diet and strategies to promote healthy eating habits, as well as a special look at tips for feeding kids with sensory issues.
What Foods to Choose and Why it Matters
“It is not good to eat too much honey, nor is it honourable to search out matters that are too deep.” —Proverbs 25:27
Choosing healthy foods might already be a part of your routine. It might seem clear what foods to choose for a healthy lifestyle and a healthy weight, but what if the foods you chose could help reduce stress, meltdowns, and increase those “good days” in people with sensory processing disorders? The act of eating as well as the nutrition involved lead to a much needed experience for those struggling with these issues by improving these main areas:
When choosing the best foods for the family we all hope they will simply eat whatever you prepare—if only it were that easy! When preparing meals for food aversions or sensory issues, keep in mind your loved one’s particular sensory needs. There is no single guide to sensory processing because every individual is unique in how they experience senses – that’s why my Stress-free Mealtimes program is 12 weeks long! It may take some trial and error, but keep these essential things in mind:
Now that you’ve narrowed down the slate of options by considering your child’s particular needs, let’s talk about what to choose based on nutrition. Clearly we want more healthy options like fruits, vegetables, and meat or other protein. In addition to what we know about keeping out junk food and serving good food, here are some more things to consider that may positively impact your journey through the senses:
The research is only just beginning to discover what truly, and statistically, will work best for children with sensory processing issues. That being said, we can be certain that by making healthy choices over processed foods and junk foods we are setting our children up for the best possibility. Most people report that when they eat healthy, they feel healthy. Therefore, we can only assume the same for our sensory super kids! This is why we must consider some of the problems with the above diets, often called “elimination diets.” Removing certain food also removes ease of access to these essential parts to a balanced diet:
These will need to be supplemented in other ways such as enriched smoothies, vitamin complexes, or even fortified juices and milks. Even though cutting out gluten and casein may seem like a sentence to boring foods, we thankfully live in modern times where we can find many alternatives for making staple foods like pasta and pancakes using plant-based GF/CF products such as rice and nut flours, or plant based milks.
Feeding Skills Overview
“That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.”— Ecclesiastes 3:13
Good eating habits might sound like more talk about what to eat and how to choose foods, but when discussing sensory issues we must think about things like motor skills and proprioception. Pushing and pulling are good exercises for proprioception, but choosing something like cereal or soup to practice these skills at first will only lead to messes and unhappy kids. We want to set them up for success before introducing challenges. This is why we must discuss not only what to feed, but how to eat. You might recall the classic Disney depiction of the Beast and Belle eating porridge. When the Beast struggles to find his way from bowl, to spoon, to mouth, Belle gently offers the suggestion to lift the bowl and sip from it instead by modelling the behaviour. Similarly, we need to consider age appropriate and ability appropriate expectations to model and teach. This information before may help you to know how to prepare foods and what foods to introduce depending on the abilities. Remember; don’t be discouraged if the ability doesn’t match up with the age! We all must learn at our own pace. One thing to remember is that they cannot be forced to learn if they aren’t ready.
Drinking milestones to watch for:
Feeding milestones to watch for:
Strategies for Feeding
In every aspect of learning, children simply learn the best when they are at play. The same can be said of learning through sensory processing issues. In fact, incorporating sensory play for any child gives the mind and body a healthy boost that many call a “reset”. This reset helps us to feel recharged and focused, or even calm. People are much more willing to retain and process new information when they feel peaceful and safe. By using these fun games and activities we engage the senses and skills involved in the feeding process. Children will be able to translate the play into their other tasks. Here are some examples of that will encourage the motor skills and sensory processing abilities needed for feeding time:
In addition to these and many more playtime games and activities, we may also introduce new foods gently over time to lead up to finally trying the new thing. For example, try introducing a new fruit or vegetable by placing it out and encourage smelling it Monday. Tuesday, encourage touching it and “kissing it”: placing the food on the lips. Wednesday encourage licking the food. Thursday, if they haven’t already done so, have them hold a bite in their mouth. By Friday, encouraging taking, chewing, and swallowing. One they’ve successfully tasted the food and eaten a bite, reward them with something they love!
In addition to all this there are some helpful tools to consider that may make life a little easier. Some examples of things to try are:
Ergonomic Cutlery with large grip
Water Bottle with no spill top
Suction Plate/Placemat for easy clean-up
Remember, when trying to develop new skills for sensory children it is best to remain calm—even when they succeed! Don’t try to force them into something they are simply not ready to do with anger and frustration—this only results in unhappy feelings for all involved. Pick a time to try these ideas when your child is at their calmest.
A Word of Encouragement
Feeding skills and healthy eating habits will develop over time. Save yourself the trouble of comparison by remembering not to! One of the greatest tips is to think only of your child’s individual milestones and progress, not the progress of any other child. Yes, we use these concepts as a guideline, but the fact is that everyone is different and everyone’s sensory thumbprint is unique! As you go through this process of trying new strategies and introducing new foods and feeding skills to your child with sensory needs, remember that you are not alone in this. God sees your heart and your efforts and smiles upon the love and care that you share each day.
“The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'” —Matthew 25:40
Have your mind put at peace by calling and talking through the challenges of parenting or living with sensory issues.
We’ll uncover hidden processes that could be sabotaging all your best efforts. You’ll leave the session renewed with hope for the future, understood, your faith honoured, and inspired to finally put plans into action for your family that will last a lifetime.