Self-Care Chronicles: Nutrition and Eating for Sensory Issues

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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:

  • Sensory processing: Accurately receiving sensory information of the environment around and including the individual’s body.
    • Why: Meal time is full of senses that can be enjoyable. The very act engages almost every sense from the obvious like smell and taste, to fine motor skills and tangible stimulation. 
  • Planning and sequencing: Performing multi-step tasks in order as well as deciding which order that should be.
    • Why: Especially in very small children eating includes sequencing such as cleaning hands before eating, sitting at the table, lifting the utensils, then choosing the bite to take. For most people these are all subconscious thoughts, but for those with triggers relating to mealtime it is essential to build these areas with care. 
  • Attention and Concentration: Being able to focus on the given task and complete the objective.
    • Why: People with sensory processing issues tend to struggle with focus and completing given tasks, or they might obsess about a particular task and not want to move on. Eating a meal or a snack is an objective that can be scheduled to teach     these concepts in a way that makes sense and happens naturally—we simply must eat at some time!
  • Receptive Language: Comprehending and responding to spoken language
    • Why: Sharing meal times together often includes conversation, whether about the preparation of the food or the talk that happens over dinner. Indeed, time to eat is a time to socialise in many situations! Any practice is good practice. 
  • Executive Functioning: Known as “higher order reasoning”. The person’s ability to understand situations and discern.
    • Why: Executive functions include many aspects such as self-awareness, inhibition, and working memory. You might have noticed that some children self-correct eating habits because they realise the adults around them are much neater and use strategies to remain presentable. A person that lacks strong executive functioning may not observe the modelled behaviours and choose to resort to whatever makes themselves comfortable or leads to an interesting sensory experience.
  • Compliance: Trusting instruction and doing what is asked.
    • Why: This point is certainly not about showing who’s boss—it is about respect and trust. Think of “It’s time for dinner, come eat!” As a precursor to “Don’t run in the parking lot, it’s not safe.” We want to build our child’s ability to comply with our requests not to teach them that we are the authority, but to teach them that we have their best interest in mind and want to protect them. We can easily relate this to our own compliance to what God wants. Sometimes it is so hard to do as He says and we put up a strong protest and often get hurt in the end. However, when we grow in our relationship with Him we come to realise that all along He had a better plan.

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 the Stress-free Mealtimes program is 12 weeks long! It may take some trial and error, but keep these essential things in mind:

  • Texture: Do they prefer crunchy, slimy, cool, warm, smooth, rough? Most will want something crisp and crunchy, but some may find soft and chewy more satisfying.
  • Smell: potent scents might be best to avoid (like stinky cheese) – or not. 
  • Sound: noisy crunches, like when eating a carrot, could be overwhelming or those with auditory sensitivities that would rather have something quiet.
  • Movement. How long can they sit for? Look at the seating height, fabric and how active they typically are.

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:

  • A Gluten-Free Diet may reduce symptoms of ASD and other sensory processing issues.
    • The Gluten-Free diet might have originally been created for those with Celiac Disease, but many are turning to a GF menu for many other health benefits. Gluten causes inflammation which travels throughout the organs like the stomach and brain. By choosing an anti-inflammatory diet we can see improvements in cognitive function and overall comfort. The average person might notice that foods with a high gluten content cause discomfort in bowels and mood, but a child might not have the ability to express that these are even an issue. 
  • Reducing Sugar Intake could improve mood and behaviours.
    • Making the switch to sugar-free could show improvements in mood due to changes in glucose, blood-sugar. Make sure to read labels of even products claiming to be healthy and child-friendly as these may still have a high sugar content. Fruit is a healthy choice, but juices that take multiple fruits to make one cup could potentially have too much sugar. It is also helpful to get to know how the body processes sugar. For example, honey will be used more efficiently than refined sugar from a packet. 
  • Like Gluten-Free diets, a Casein-Free Diet entails removing the protein “Casein” found in dairy products.
    • Many parents have chosen a GF/CF free diet together in order to reduce symptoms and reactions to triggers in those with sensory issues. This protein is known to cause the same issues as gluten. 

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:

  • calcium
  • fibre
  • vitamins A, D, and B complex
  • calories

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:

  • 2 to 4 months
    • Moves one or both hands up to the bottle or breast while feeding
  • 6 to 9 months
    • Holds the bottle with both hands and may use a cup with help
  • 12 to 15 months
    • Holds a cup with both hands  and takes a few sips without help
  • 15 to 18 months
    • Uses a straw
  • 2 to 3 years
    • Drinks from a cup without a lid without spilling

Feeding milestones to watch for:

  • 6 to 9 months
    • Wants to help with feeding
    • Starts holding and mouthing large infant biscuits 
    • Plays with spoon; grabs/bangs spoon; puts both ends in mouth
  • 9 to 13 months
    • Finger feeds soft foods and foods that melt quickly Enjoys finger feeding
  • 12 to 14 months
    • Dips spoon in food
    • Moves spoon to mouth but is messy and spills
  • 15 to 18 months
    • Scoops food with a spoon and feeds self
  • 18 to 24 months
    • Wants to feed himself/herself
  • 2 to 3 years
    • Stabs food with fork
    • Uses spoon without spilling
  • 3 to 5 years
    • Eats by himself/herself

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:

  • Pretend to feed toys like dolls and animals.
    • This is the perfect opportunity to model feeding and allow practice before the real thing!
  • Have a tea party and pretend to sip from cups and eat small cakes and biscuits.
    • Just like feeding the toys, except now you will pretend to feed yourselves. 
  • Use tongs to transfer cotton balls or craft pom-poms from one bin to another.
    • For a challenge, try weaving wool, or yarn throughout a laundry basket after placing the items on the bottom. Now they must retrieve the items through the string!
  • Sensory tray seek and find
    • Using sand, rice, or other filler as a base hide in small toys, beads, or other small kid-friendly items. Provide a cup they can use to collect their “treasures”. 

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

“Clever Grip” Training Cutlery

Bendable Spoons and Forks

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 


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