Do you have a picky eater at home? Do mealtimes become frustrating and exhausting? As a matter of fact, eating is really complicated, and there’s a lot of factors that can make eating difficult for your child. Eating requires your child to use their entire sensory system, coordinate all of their muscles to sit at the table, bring the food to their mouth, chew and swallow it. That’s a lot of work, and there’s a lot of room for things to go wrong. Additionally, there are many things that need to happen prior to actually eating. Your child needs to first tolerate the food in their environment, then interact with it, then smell it, then touch it, then taste it, and then eat it. If your child is working their way through any of these steps, even if they are not yet at the final stage of eating it, there are still making progress! With these tips, you and your child can experience new foods together! 

Sensory Processing Disorder & How it Affects Eating Habits

  • Sensory Processing Disorder exists when incoming sensory messages do not get organized into appropriate responses, resulting in a disruption in daily routines, such as eating!

  • If your child is orally defensive, or hypersensitive to sensations in their mouth, they might present with gagging or avoid certain flavored foods, causing them to gravitate toward bland food such as vanilla yogurt, cheerios, and pasta with butter 

  • If your child is sensory seeking, they might seek out crunchy, textured, and flavored food, and avoid bland food 

  • A child who has low muscle tone might have a difficult time sitting upright in their chair at the dinner table 

  • A child who has poor oral motor coordination might have a difficult time chewing and swallowing their food—they might gravitate toward softer food such as yogurt and bananas 

  • A child who has a sensory-based motor disorder might have a difficult time holding their spoon to scoop food—they might gravitate toward food that requires less effort to eat 

  • To review the Sequential-Oral-Sensory (SOS) Approach to feeding, click here  

Sensory Tips 

  • If your child is hypersensitive, start with giving them deep pressure over their whole body, such as with a tight hug

  • Encourage your child to use their fingers to play with their food for sensory exploration, but make sure this isn’t done during mealtime—mashing up a banana, drawing smiley faces in yogurt  

  • Introduce new flavors and textured objects gradually—gradually thicken food, add texture to soft foods such as animal crackers to yogurt

  • Room temperature/warm foods are easier to handle, then gradually change temperatures to expand sensory experience ex) frozen & room temperature blueberries 

  • Try the food in different ways—cooked vs raw carrots 

  • Allow your child to put their favorite seasoning or sauce on the new food 

  • Read books, write social stories, and sing songs about trying new foods

  • To review the 10 myths of mealtime, click here   

At-Home Tips  

  • Discourage use of sticker charts or other reward systems as they pertain to behavioral control. This can help in the moment, but is not effective long term. 

  • Have your child help you prepare the meal—mixing the bowl, pouring in the ingredients—so they get excited to eat it and feel in control. It is important to note that they can still help prepare the meal even if they don’t want to eat it 

  • Eat as a family to normalize the process and make your child feel more comfortable 

  • Remove all distractions—put away toys and turn off the TV or iPad

  • Make sure your child is seated at the table in a 90-90-90 position, meaning their elbows, hips, knees and ankles are bent at 90 degrees

  • Introduce the food at the beginning of the meal when your child is hungry 

  • Have an extra plate on the table for them to learn from—remind them they are not forced to eat the new food, they can put it on the extra plate 

  • Allow for a spit cup to let them know they don’t have to swallow it if they don’t like it 

  • Only introduce one new food at a time, you don’t want to overload your child 

  • Model eating the new food in front of your child—you can also have an older sibling model eating, too

  • Allow turn taking—first me, then you 

  • Even if the child won’t eat it on the first exposure, leave it out on the table during mealtime so they can get more comfortable having it in their environment 

  • Have your child help present the food in a fun way—fun colors with natural food coloring, use fruit & vegetable cookie cutters. Only change one property at a time

  • Have a preferred food at the table 

  • Use smaller portions 

  • Give choices: “do you want 2 or 4 carrots?” so your child feels in control 

  • Add “you can” language ex) “you can eat those cucumbers”, instead of “do you want to eat those cucumbers” 

  • Encourage descriptive and non-judgmental language “that has a big smell” or “this pudding feels slimy” instead of “that looks disgusting” 

  • No matter what, do not force your child to finish their plate or eat something they are not ready to eat—anxiety during mealtime will suppress their appetite and they will no longer be hungry  

  • Have your child included in a clean-up routine 

  • Mealtime PREP (promoting routines of exploration and play) intervention is a way for parents to help their child increase variety in fruits in vegetables, and improve mealtime behaviors. The three categories of this intervention include family meals, positive reinforcements, and food exploration and play. To learn more about this method, click here.  

Amy Leggio, OTS

Disclaimer: If you have concerns about your child’s eating habits, consult with your therapist about developing a sensory diet to meet the specific needs of your child or so they can help you seek out help from a feeding therapist. 


American Occupational Therapy Association. (2017). Examining the effects of the mealtime  PREP intervention for toddlers with sensory food aversions. American Journal of  Occupational Therapy, 71, 7111515208. doi: 10.5014/ajot.2017.71s1-rp101d