8 Ways I Helped My Special Needs Child with Picky Eating 

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

As a mother of a 2.5 year old autistic child, I know the struggle and stress of having a kid who’s not eating.  Recently, we’ve worked with a SOS Certified feeding therapist to help my child with his picky eating habits. And, we’ve seen great results so far! 

How does SOS Feeding Therapy help with picky eating?

Sequential Oral Sensory (SOS) Approach is a widely recognized and evidence-based intervention for feeding difficulties, including children with autism. It focuses on addressing the sensory and motor aspects of eating through a child-centered approach. 

As a parent, the SOS approach has helped reframe my thinking.  Before, when I would worry about “How do I get him to eat this broccoli?” I now ask myself questions like, “How can I add nutrition to his current preferences?” or, “What does he like about “_____” food and what else might be like based on this?”  

As a sleep coach, I know that when our kids are eating better, they are getting the vitamins and nutrients they need for better quality sleep at night! That’s why I want to share with you how I helped my son have a healthier relationship with food.

Work on Food Exploration 

The SOS Approach encourages children to explore foods through all their senses.  Ideally, this helps a child become more comfortable with the sensory experience of different foods. Using different pathways like touching, smelling, listening to descriptions of food, looking at new foods can increase a child’s comfort level of unfamiliar foods. More importantly, it increases their willingness to try them. 

At home, we describe foods as they are being prepped for dinner, even if I know they won’t get eaten.  I also include my son in food prep in a way that works for him. 

Even though he doesn’t yet have the skills like pouring, chopping, or stirring, I think about what he can help with.  For example, he can watch and observe me putting things in a bowl. 

We’ve even had days where I’ve chopped up all the veggies and he throws them in a bowl. While he does that, I name the veggies and describe their colors. Sometimes, he might even just smell the spice mix I’ve added to a bowl, and that’s as far as we go!

Food Chaining for your picky eater

Food chaining is a big part of the SOS Approach. It involves introducing new foods that share similarities with “preferred” foods. Though it takes a bit of creative thinking, this has been my favorite strategy. 

For example, my son went through a phase where he would only eat oatmeal or completely pureed food. Before that, he ate everything from lamb to broccolini as a baby!

After I learned about food chaining, I started to make tiny changes to the way I prepared oatmeal.  Suddenly, this one safe food, oatmeal, turned into 3 new foods! That’s because food chaining helps bridge the gap between familiar and unfamiliar foods, increasing your child’s range of options.

I was able to make oatmeal with spices, oatmeal with finely blended lentils, oatmeal with sweet potato, and oatmeal with carrot. I did this by gradually making sure the texture and colors stayed the same.  Then, slowly add more of the new ingredient. 

Another things we tried was modifying mac n’ cheese. My son’s preferred pasta is the Goodles brand mac n’ cheese. When I applied food chaining, I kept the color and pasta shape the same.  The only thing I changed was the sauce by adding pureed butternut squash. I made sure the taste and texture was barely noticeable. When serving it, I served it alongside the original version, and made sure not to “trick” him about what was in the food. 

Now, I am able to offer a mac and cheese with pureed carrots, butternut squash and sweet potato in the sauce. But I’m careful not to stray too drastically away from these colors and textures. I want to make sure that mac n’ cheese stays a safe, and trusted food.

Want to know how small we started?

We went super gradual and added about a ¼ teaspoon at a time of the new food. Just 1/4 tsp!

I learned this thanks to my feeding therapist.  If the changes are too big, the pace is too fast, safe foods won’t always remain safe foods.  Always continue to provide the safe option alongside the modified meal as if needed. This is crucial to help overcome picky eating.

Gradual Exposure

The SOS Approach promotes a gradual exposure to new foods to help overcome picky eating. This allows the child to build confidence and reduces anxiety around trying new foods. 

For our family, that means having food that we’d like to be consumed like rice, meat, steamed veggies, in view. This allows him to see us eat the food. Sometimes, we might place the food on his plate for exposure. 

He has the option to leave it there, or he can “feed it” to a character he uses as his “no thank you bowl”. This helps take the pressure off of the expectation of eating a food that is in front of him. Also, it allows him many opportunities to touch and pick up the food. This gives him more tactile exposure. 

Play-Based Therapy to help Picky Eating

Play in the SOS Approach is very important in helping kids have positive associations with food. This can include cooking, or food-themed games that allow children to interact with food in a non-threatening and enjoyable way.  Literally, play with your food!

That being said, this has been one of the strategies that I have found most daunting, since it involves planning outside of meal time. However, it has been surprisingly successful and less prep than I imagined. 

Some ways we work on this at home is to pretend to feed preferred toys, putting preferred and new foods in an ice cube tray. This way, a new food is associated with a preferred.  This was how he ended up tasting edamame on his own! I couldn’t believe my eyes when it happened!

Our feeding therapist gave us some good ideas to try such as using food as paint materials. For example, using asparagus as a paintbrush, yogurt and food coloring as paint, and sliced fruits and veggies as stamps. 

We recently started a weekly routine of feeding the ducks, at a nearby lake. We feed them corn and peas, which are foods my son doesn’t eat…yet!  But, this activity led to him giving corn a taste for the first time. It might seem small, but any progress counts as a win!

Mealtime Structure and Routine

Establishing a structured mealtime routine is crucial in the SOS Approach. Regular meal and snack times provide predictability and consistency, which can reduce anxiety and resistance during meals. We know that this works great when it comes to teaching good sleep as well!

Creating a relaxed environment for meals supports your child to focus on eating and trying new foods. In our home, we have a feeding schedule where meals/snacks are offered around 7am, 9am, 12am, 3pm, and 6pm, along with a bedtime snack.

We also do not allow grazing between meals, which is helpful in supporting our meal structure and schedule. This is what works for our family, and of course will look different depending on individual family routines and schedules.

Use Sensory Integration Activities

Eating is a huge sensory experience.  The color, taste, smell, temperature, and texture of food can be overwhelming for kids with sensory processing issues.  This is why the SOS Approach always includes sensory techniques for better eating. 

There are several techniques that I use with my son to help with food aversions.  For example, we use reusable fruit shaped ice cubes to play around with colder temperatures, while also seeing fruit in a fun way.  We also use shape cutters to cut foods into fun shapes.

At Melissa Doman Sleep Consulting, we also teach parents certain techniques like smell and taste stimulation, and oral stimulation to help encourage better eating.

The common recommendation to use a sensory table or bins has not been too successful for us, especially when it comes to touching wet or “icky” things. 

But, that’s where bath time can come in handy. Use bath paints, crayons, or markers, child safe bath bombs, different types of bubble bath, sparkly bath slime, and more.  These are not only fun to use, but it’s easy to clean up as well.

Always use Positive Reinforcement

Praising children for their efforts and small steps of progress can boost their confidence and motivation. This helps kids to create a positive association with food and mealtimes. And, it gives you a chance to recognize all the hard work that you’ve put in to help your child expand their palette.

Of course, not every child likes a big celebration thrown for them. For us, a simple “looks like you like the carrot sauce!” or “you’re trying a new food!” does the trick. 

Patience and Persistence is key!

Picky eating habits can be challenging to overcome, but patience and persistence are key! It is the name of the game in creating a supportive and positive eating environment, and expanding your child’s food repertoire. The SOS Approach recognizes that progress may be slow and that setbacks will occur. 

Originally, I felt like this was a lot of fuss over getting a kid to eat! But now I know that sensory processing differences can make the entire mealtime experience intense and overwhelming, so I do my best to find patience. I don’t want to send my child into sensory overload, or start a power struggle.

There are many strategies that can be used to tackle picky eating for children with special needs that don’t involve pressure, bribery, or power struggles. Using a child-centered approach like SOS is a great way to meet a child where they are. 

We know nutrition plays a role in a good sleep — The team at MDSC recommend reaching out to a feeding therapist to find help locally. 

Have questions about helping your special needs child sleep better? Contact us for more info!

Photo Credit: Jimmy Dean on Unsplash