Taste Sensitivities: If My Child Avoids Certain Foods, is it More than Picky Eating?
This article provides helpful information about taste sensitivities in sensory children. Affiliate links are included for your convenience.
Eating is a fabulous multisensory experience. I love trying new foods, dishes and experimenting with different flavors. I always look forward to trying new recipes (when I have the time). Most people love to eat, however, for some children and adults, eating can be a frustrating and even painful experience if they have sensory sensitivities. If you have a child that is hypersensitive to different textures, eating is not always enjoyable, especially when sensitivities become extreme. For a child with a sensory processing disorder that struggles with taste sensitivity, mealtime is typically meltdown central.
How Does Taste Work
How does a child’s brain know what the mouth is chewing? To start with, we need to distinguish between taste and flavor. These two words often are assumed to be interchangeable, but they mean different things. Taste is a chemical sense perceived by specialized receptor cells that make up the taste buds on the tongue. Flavor is a fusion of many senses. To discern flavor, the brain interprets not only the taste stimuli, but also the smell, tactile and temperature of the food. All of this information comes together for the brain to distinguish the flavor of a particular food.
So what actually happens when a child puts food in their mouth? As the child chews, the food releases chemicals and those tiny bumps on the tongue (papillae) have tiny little hairs that send messages to the brain that the food is salty, sweet, bitter or sour. At the same time, those chemicals travel up into the child’s nose. This triggers the olfactory receptors that are located in the nose. They work together with the child’s taste buds to figure out the flavor of the food or drink that is the mouth.
Common Signs of Taste Sensitivity
If your child may has taste sensitivities, do they:
- Avoid foods that most children the same age enjoy?
- Have an extremely limited list of foods he or she will eat? (under 10)
- Craves certain tastes?
- Becomes agitated over an unusual taste?
- Gag, or gets nauseated easily?
- May prefer very spicy or hot foods?
- Strongly objects to certain textures of food?
- Doesn’t like food being too hot or too cold?
- Licks or tastes inedible objects frequently (toys, pencils, paper, play dough)?
Understanding Food Issues
There are different types of food and taste challenges that a child may struggle with as they grow older. In The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun, a child’s taste can be over or underdeveloped if they do not have enough sensory integration.
“DSI (Dysfunction in Sensory Integration) may affect smell and taste. Under insensitivity or oversensitivity to smells and tastes often interferes with a child’s eating habits and nutrition. Indeed, DSI may be a huge contributing factor to a feeding aversion, leading to a failure-to-thrive diagnosis.”
Hyposensitivities to Taste
As we see in many of the sensory disorders, kids can be on both sides of the spectrum (hypersensitive or hyposensitive) when it comes to taste. There are those who strongly object to certain textures, flavors, and temperatures of food. These children dislike any strong tasting foods such as onions, garlic, vinegar, and chili peppers or any flavors that resemble these flavors. These kids are oversensitive or “hyposensitive” to foods and flavors. When a child over-register’s tastes, smells or textures of foods, they may start to refuse most foods that are offered or available. Parents may now have a greater understanding of why toddlers tend to be picky eaters, but a child with a taste sensory disorder may never grow out of the picky eater stage. Nutritional and caloric intake can become a concern.
Hypersensitivities to Taste
In contrast, there are kids who can eat highly spicy or strong flavored foods. Children who don’t seem to be affected by these strong flavors, smells or tastes are the under responsive type. They under-register different stimuli and have a hard time distinguishing similar tastes. This is why they may gravitate to strong flavors, extreme textures and are often chewing different foods.
Other Sensory Feeding Problems
Children with sensory feeding problems will often have difficulty transitioning from one food texture to another. A friend of mine has a son who struggles with food textures. He remained fixed on soft foods, and would only eat baby food (or food that was pureed) for years. He refused to touch, let alone eat, any food that had any crunchy or firm texture.
Sometimes, children will gag and vomit frequently if the undesirable texture is near. In Raising a Sensory Smart Child, it mentions that the taste defensive child may be reacting to the smell of the food rather than the actual taste. Smell and taste are obviously connected, and sometimes a child with food issues is dealing with sensitivities to smell rather than taste. A picky eater could be a child who avoids foods with certain texture or temperature. These particular issues may show sensory problems that are beyond the initial sense. For example, a child that craves crunchy items like pretzels, nuts, and chips, may be seeking sensory input in the joints of the mouth. In contrast, a child who avoids chewy foods like meat and hard breads may have weak jaw muscles.
Ways to Help Your Child at Home
If your child is dealing with sensory processing issues and is struggling with food and taste sensitivities, here are a few activities you can do at home to help.
Keep a Log
Keep a log of your child’s reactions to food and smells. Pretty soon you will start to see a trend. Foods that your child refuses or enjoys will become more obvious as they try new things. Keep this journal with you if your child is meeting with a therapist.
Try a divided plate when serving meals to your food sensitive child. I have heard from multiple parents that this tip has helped at meal times. Try putting two foods on the plate that the child will eat and two “challenge” foods that you want them to try. Using a divided plate ensures the new foods won’t touch the other foods your child enjoys.
Give them a Choice
Give your child a choice. We all know that kids need to try new foods. With a taste sensitive child, this can be difficult. Encourage your child to choose from two or three new foods during mealtime. This gives more control back to the child.
Vary presentation of food. Many kids have texture issues with foods. Pick a food the child likes, such as applesauce and present the apple in new ways. One day, give the child fresh apple slices and another day try dehydrated apple slices. Explain that it is the same food, just prepared different ways.
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