Feeding Therapy for Picky Eaters

Parents who grew up in the era of “clean your plate” and “you get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit” may think of picky eating as a behavioral problem. In reality, dinnertime standoffs are often the product of sensory processing challenges, oral motor issues, or other medical conditions. Today, we’d like to explore the basics of feeding therapy for picky eaters. Learn how Project Play Therapy can take your meals from emotional battles to rewarding bonding experiences.

Why is My Kid a Picky Eater?

Your child’s pickiness might not be their fault. We know that many parents think that refusing certain foods is a matter of defiance, but often, there are deeper issues at play. In some instances, kids develop aversions because of undiagnosed sensory processing disorder (SPD). This condition causes the brain to over- and underreact to stimuli, including tastes and textures. 

Signs of sensory challenges during mealtimes include:

  • Consistently refusing specific textures or tastes
  • Complaining that the food is “slimy” or “too crunchy”
  • Gagging or vomiting if forced to eat certain things
  • Demonstrating sensitivity to smells
  • Only eating meals that meet their criteria (temperature, texture, etc.)
  • Avoiding foods based on prior aversive experiences
  • Feeling anxiety or crying in anticipation of a meal
  • Refusing to sit at the table or participate in meals

In other instances, children refuse specific textures because they’re just difficult to eat. This can happen because of physical differences in mouth structure, a lack of muscular control, or unaddressed dental issues.  Finally, picky eaters may have conditions like undiagnosed allergies, pain associated with eating, or trauma, all of which can cause negative behaviors and mealtime disruptions. 

Therefore, the first step of feeding therapy for picky eaters is to get to the bottom of your child’s behavior. The experts at Project Play Therapy will conduct a thorough assessment to determine whether any underlying issues are fueling food avoidance. From there, our occupational therapists (OTs) and speech-language pathologists (SLPs) will outline a fully individualized treatment plan for your child and begin feeding therapy sessions.

What is Feeding Therapy?

Your child’s feeding therapy experience will vary based on their needs. For example, children with motor or anatomical concerns will receive different interventions than those with sensory issues. 

Our veteran OTs and SLPs use multiple models, which are often combined for maximum efficacy. For example, therapists employing a sensory-based approach will utilize strategic, play-based techniques designed to slowly work from visual tolerance, to touch, right up to smell and eventual eating! Therapists primarily using oral motor tactics will work towards strength, endurance, and coordination of the tongue and lips, as well as mastery of chewing and sucking mechanisms. Both approaches include comprehensive evaluations, implementation of home activities, and goal-setting exercises.

Common feeding therapy goals include:

  • Increasing the range of accepted foods
  • Decreasing the child’s sensitivity to certain textures
  • Improving the child’s mouth coordination and movement
  • Transitioning to age-appropriate meals (solids, bottle feeding)
  • Decreasing mealtime conflicts/tantrums
  • Improving drinking or sucking abilities
  • Coordinating breathing and eating to ensure safe consumption
  • Learning how to safely use utensils, position food, and swallow 
  • Reducing the stress around mealtimes
  • Establishing healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime

How Can I Help My Picky Eater?

We love to get parents involved in feeding therapy. The work you do outside of Project Play will help your child progress; it will also empower you to carry over skills into your home. 

For example, parents of toddlers should encourage their kids to play with their food—yes, really! The more your child encounters new ingredients in a fun, low-pressure setting, the more prepared they’ll be to eat them down the line. 
Incorporating oral motor toys like straws or bubbles can help your child master the muscular coordination needed for stress-free eating.

Finally, consider the preparation and presentation of your child’s meals. Be mindful of temperature, texture, and portion size. Giving a picky eater a giant pile of a non-preferred meat or vegetable can be overwhelming, increasing pressure, aversion, and anxiety. Try offering a choice of two small portions instead, using a little plate. Encourage your child to explore that new ingredient by picking it up, licking it, touching it, or kissing it. Once they get familiar with the snack, they’ll be more likely to give it a try!

Feeding Therapy in Middle Tennessee

Project Play Therapy is proud to offer feeding therapy for picky eaters throughout Middle Tennessee. Our dedicated occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists are standing by and ready to accept new clients. Contact us to schedule your child’s evaluation.