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10 Ways to Help Your Resistant Eater

Occupational Therapy Staff
July 10, 2018

Eating is a complex multi-sensory process. While eating, we receive information from all our senses simultaneously; vision, touch, smell, taste, sound, proprioception, and balance. Additionally, eating is a complex motor and neurological process using 26 different muscles and six cranial nerves. As children grow and develop, they become better able to process this complex experience and become more confident with their eating skills.

How picky and resistant eaters are created

If any of these systems are not functioning properly, there is an impact on the eating process. As any new type of food can lead to potential sensory overload, these resistant eaters want to stay safe and stick to what they know. Parents try a variety of tactics with not very much success and often in the end are concerned about nutrition which result in catering to their resistant eater’s preferences.

Picky eaters vs. resistant eaters

Picky eaters have aversions to food but they eventually eat enough of a variety of foods to maintain a balanced diet. Resistant eaters, however, have severe food aversions that prevent them from eating a balanced diet. Resistant eaters often exhibit one or more of the following:

  • Limited food selections (will eat 10-15 foods or less)
  • Limited food groups (refuses one or more food groups)
  • Exhibits anxiety/tantrums or gags/become ill when experiencing a new food
  • Experiences food jags; requiring one or more foods be present at every meal prepared in the same manner
  • Diagnosed with a developmental delay

10 suggestions for supporting your resistant eater

Here are some ways to support your resistant eater in feeling more positive about eating:

  1. Consider positioning and seating. Is the positioning and seating appropriate for your child’s size (feet on surface, forearms can rest at edge of the table)?
  2. Introduce positive conversational topics. Don’t talk about how much/little everyone eats at the table. Family mealtimes should be positive for everyone and not focus on the resistant eater.
  3. Keep consistent daily routines. A consistent and predictable daily routine is needed so the resistant eater knows when meal time and snacks will occur.
  4. Include your child in food preparation and presentation. Take him grocery shopping and include him in picking out food. For some children handling and touching the food is a first step in decreasing their anxiety. Can she help mix, measure, wash?
  5. Sit at the table. Meals should occur in an environment that focuses on eating and socializing (not in front of the TV).
  6. Discuss the taste, texture, and smell of new foods. During the meal, it’s helpful for to the resistant eater if the family can talk positively about what they are eating.
  7. Create opportunities for choice making. Allow your child to choose from a selection of drinks, or choose between two healthy meal options, or choose which spoon, fork, cup, or plate she wants to use for her meal.
  8. Make changes in small increments. Make slight changes in the presentation of food but in ways that will not create anxiety for your child. If your child wants macaroni and cheese, use a different type of noodle or a different brand.
  9. Select only one menu for the entire family. The menu should include a variety of foods familiar to the resistant eater as well as some new foods. Consider texture, color, and smell when introducing new foods. Some foods are easier to chew and swallow than others.
  10. Offer small portion sizes. Keep portion size small for a new food (e.g. 1 carrot, 2 peas) so your child will feel more likely to try the new food. A good rule of thumb for controlling portion size is to consider one tablespoon of each type of food for each year of your child’s age.

Resistant eaters of all ages can learn new skills to experience new foods. Contact us for additional support in helping your picky or resistant eater. For children who are not gaining weight, please contact your medical professional.

References and Resources

Ernsperger, L. & Stegen-Hanson, T. (2004). Just take a bite: Easy, effective answers to food
aversions and eating challenges! Arlington, TX: Future Horizons.

Fenhaus, B. (2011). Parent tips: Picky eaters. Sensations e-Newsletter, Fall 2011.

Sanders, B. (2013, June 4). Feeding kids with sensory processing disorder. (Blog article).
Retrieved from https://mom.me/kids/7470-feeding-kids-sensory-processing-disorder/

Satter, E. (1999). Secrets of feeding a healthy family: How to eat, how to raise good eaters, how
to cook. Madison, WI: Kelcy Press.

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