Food Aversion

Sensory Food Aversion

Sensory Food Aversion refers the refusal to eat certain foods because of taste, texture, smell or appearance. Eating a healthy, balanced diet is a vital part of life, thus it can be incredibly frustrating and upsetting when your child refuses to eat the food that you have mad available for them. Parents often feel guilty about being unable to ensure that their child is receiving the correct nutrition that optimizes both physical and mental development.

Indications of Sensory Food Aversion

The way a child reacts to certain foods will indicate whether or not they have Sensory Food Aversion. If your child displays the following negative behaviors regularly, it may be time to get support:

Extreme grimacing
Consistent refusal to eat a particular food
Generalizing food types- food groups, even food brands- eating only limited foods

Become upset if the “offending” food touches other foods on plate

Implications of Sensory Food Aversion

Sensory Food Aversion in children can have an impact on general well-being as it may severely affect interpersonal relationships, behavior, development, self-esteem, socialization and cognitive ability. Professional intervention is recommended as soon as the food aversion is becoming entrenched in your child’s daily life and is affecting their behavior and development negatively.

A child suffering from severe Sensory Food Aversion may refuse to eat foods from an entire food group essential for a healthy diet of a growing child. Children refusing to eat vegetables, dairy or meats will lack the vital minerals, vitamins and proteins they need to develop good health. There are also implications for oral motor development if children refuse to eat foods that require significant chewing. This can eventually lead to problems with articulation and speech development.

Sensory food aversion, food refusal and food selectivity in extreme forms require professional treatment as these issues also have a negative impact on the child’s behavior and this can cause a lot of stress within the family. The child’s problem with eating can become all-encompassing; therefore, successful treatment programs will include strategies for the whole family to incorporate.

There are also social implications of Sensory Food Aversion; children may feel very uncomfortable during lunchtimes at school, birthday parties, play dates, visits to family, etc, as they will not want others to notice their issues with eating and food.

All of the above implications make it starkly evident that this can be a serious condition that requires immediate attention and intervention by parents and/or health professionals.

Control Issues

Control remains a key component of many eating disorders; and it is this control that these children are reluctant to relinquish to their parents or to professionals involved in treatment. Gifted children in particular, can be highly willful. When challenged to change negative behaviours, they are likely to become even more resistant. In treating gifted children that have problems with eating, it is advisable to follow a holistic approach and understand that this type of child has complex cognitive, social, emotional and disciplinary needs.

Food aversions have been classified into four types of foods that are rejected because they are:

  1. Dangerous- for example a gifted 2 year old refusing to eat avocado states “that‟s poisonous”, because to him, the strange look of this unusual fruit with its blackish green bumpy outer skin and mushy pea green flesh, makes it appear to be dangerous and highly unappealing!
  2. Inappropriate- for example a child who feels that anything other than sandwiches for lunch is „inappropriate‟ or only for adults or that „exotic‟, or „different‟ foods are inappropriate because they do not fit in with their idea of what food should smell/look/taste/feel like.
  3. Disgusting- could be the look of the food, smell, texture, past experience involving the food or a fact about the food (for example an aversion to milk because it comes from the udders of a cow and would therefore be smelly/dirty.
  4. Distasteful- examples of which are any foods that can be eaten, but only if they are hidden or blended to mask the texture or sight of them- for example carrots blended into pasta sauce.

Helpful strategies to reduce Sensory Food Aversion:

  • Allow your child to handle foods with different textures as much as possible. Even if they don‟t eat the prepared meal, allow them to help during preparation- from taking potatoes out of a bag, to washing peppers under the tap, to pouring pasta into a pot, whisking an egg, kneading dough, etc.
  • Do try to sit down as a family and eat meals together as often as possible. Meal times will then become something to look forward to and provide enjoyable opportunities to catch up as a family.
  • Make meal times fun, not stressful.
  • Lead by example and do not graze all day- rather savor and enjoy a prepared family meal. Do not overwhelm your child with too much food during meal times- one heaped tablespoon per age of child is advisable to begin with.
  • Do not offer more than 3 different food types during a meal.
  • Never, ever force feed your child.
  • If your child gags after eating certain foods, offer that type of food after a few weeks interval.
  • Distraction during meal times can be a useful tool to alleviate anxiety. This can include conversations about positive/exciting things that are happening at present or in the future, funny stories, playing relaxing or even upbeat music- the list is endless.
  • Food Chaining technique- gradually build up „acceptable‟ foods. For example, if your child will eat a plain biscuit, gradually introduce crackers, then cracker bread, dry toast, toast with margarine, toast with a thin layer of cream cheese, toast with wafer thin ham, a sandwich with a filling of their choice, etc. Similarly with other foods and drinks follow a set pattern of food chaining to eventually build up a nutritionally diverse and acceptable diet that is essential for a growing child. Food chaining must always follow the same shape, colour and texture for success. This conveys the idea that new food is safe food as it is familiar and therefore acceptable.
  • Although tempting, do not beg, cajole, plead, or bribe children to eat. This will ultimately backfire and can become a weapon that a child will use to further control meal times.
  • Do not given them the same foods on a daily basis. Explain that this is not only boring as there are so many different foods to choose from, but also eating the same food all the time does not provide the body with a varied diet that is essential to all round growth and well- being.

Meals Without Tears: How to get Your Child to Eat Healthily and Happily, by Dr. Rana Conway

Just Two More Bites! Helping Picky Eaters Say Yes to Food, by Linda Piette

© National Association for Gifted Children 2010 - 2012 Charity No: 313182