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How to Help Your Sensitive Child with Picky Eating Habits

Updated on January 3, 2016

Is Your Child Highly Sensitive?

Children who are easily overstimulated when they hear a sound, see a bright light, or smell a strong odor might be a highly sensitive child. According to Dr. Aron, approximately one-fifth of the population contains individuals who are born with an extra sensitive nervous system. If your child cries and hides from loud sounds, for instance, your child could have a highly active nervous system.

A highly sensitive child or highly sensitive children (HSC) are vulnerable to picky eating habits; not by choice, but because they are built that way. They might strongly object to the way certain foods look or smell. They might gag easily if you put a food into their mouths that is unfamiliar to them.

Unfortunately, this might cause some mealtime angst as well as vitamin deficiencies.

Parents can be instrumental in helping their HSC with their challenges and special needs.

Get Your Highly Sensitive Child Eating

Some parents become very worried when their toddler won't eat anything. It can become frightening when your child is hungry, you know she needs to eat, but she refuses to eat.

If nothing is medically wrong with her, you might have a child who is naturally very selective with what she eats.

At this point, if you have a child who is toddler age and you're having trouble getting her to eat, you might have to get her to eat anything at first. If healthy foods are objectionable to your toddler, you might have to settle for processed foods until your little one decides to be more adventurous and try something new.

Try something salty or sweet. These stimulate the appetite. For instance, you could try cereal and raisins on the sweet side. You could try oven-baked french fries and chicken nuggets for salty foods. Or, you could use potato chips as an appetite stimulator.

You also might want to buy foods that can be appealing to kids, but are fortified with essential vitamins and minerals, such as fruit snacks, or juice fortified with calcium. You will have to work with your child's tastes to see what solutions work best for her.

Most parents cringe at the idea of feeding their kids processed foods. However, it's much better than your child not eating at all. The idea is to get your child eating something. When your child's belly is full, you can work on reasoning with your child.

For your HSC, eating processed foods might seem like a relief from eating foods with strong odors and textures she is rejecting at this time in her life.

Keep in mind that it's common for toddlers to be picky or only eat a few foods. Work on managing your own stress about it, and look forward to the times where your toddler will grow into an adult with healthy eating habits.

Manage Your Own Stress

Getting anxious over your child who will only eat hot dogs will not help your child or you. You need to calm yourself down.

The moment you set up the dinner table as a time for battle, you've already lost the war. Or, forget the war. You've lost your child's attention and trust.

The human body can endure a lot in its lifetime, and while it's understandable you want to start your child off the right way, with nutritious foods, you will need to keep your own behaviors as productive as possible so your child does not experience anxiety at every meal. She will take her cues from you. The more upset you become, the more upset she will be.

To manage your own stress, make sure you acknowledge that you are worried. Take a few deep breaths and tell yourself statements that will calm you down, such as, "I know I'm worried about my little one not eating healthy foods, but getting anxious about it won't help me right now. I need to focus on finding ways to get my child to eat healthy, and I know that over the years I will find a way to help my child appreciate healthy foods."

Getting your highly sensitive child to eat healthy can be challenging because of their sensitive nervous systems.

How to Deal with Picky Eating Habits in Highly Sensitive Children

If your child is highly suspicious of new foods, gags when she tries anything new, or hides and cries every time you cook broccoli, your child is simply acting that way because of her highly sensitive nervous system.

Having kids who have this sort of reaction towards healthy foods creates a big challenge for parents. Here are a list of suggestions on how to handle your little one's needs.

Acknowledge that Your Child's Reactions to Foods Are Real

HSC don't respond this way to food for fun. Their reaction to the smell, taste, and texture of foods is authentic and real.

Understand Your Child Needs Help with Managing Sensory Overload

With highly sensitive children, it's more than just helping your child develop healthy eating habits.

You are helping your child learn ways to manage her own anxiety over experiencing something extremely unpleasant, such as nausea or gagging.

Also, you are helping your child learn to take chances, which because of the highly negative experiences they experience when there is a food with a taste, smell of texture they don't like, can be much scarier than with a child who does not have as sensitive of a nervous system as a highly sensitive child.

Give Your Child the Power to Choose

This works with picky eaters in general, but for highly sensitive children, this is of utmost importance.

Remember that your child might have more anxiety over experiencing unpleasant tastes, textures, and smells than other children because of her high sensitivity.

In having her have the final say over what she eats, she can feel empowered to try foods that are similar to the ones she already likes, or a completely different food.

Avoid Negativity

Putting your child down, shaming her, ridiculing her, or forcing her to eat something that repulses her will only make her resistance burrow its way into permanence as well as affect her self-esteem negatively.

Help Your Child Concentrate on What's the Same

Since your child likes sticking with the familiar, concentrate on buying similar foods and have your child describe what tastes the same about it to another food he already eats. For example, if your child eats potato chips, you can buy salted pumpkin seeds. Then state, "Look, pumpkin seeds. I think they taste salty like potato chips. What do you think?"

Use Praise

Everyone thrives from some form of encouragement. If your child is eating where she wouldn't eat before, or if she is eating more healthy foods, offer her lots of praise. It can be scary for a HSC to try something new, because if she doesn't like it, the effect on their bodies can be extreme. Whereas many kids might just wrinkle their nose and spit out the food and wash their mouth out with juice, a HSC might have a physical reaction that is highly unpleasant, such as nausea, gagging, or stomach ache. To overcome one's fear of something that unpleasant happening to her is worthy of lots of praise indeed!

Associate Healthy Foods with Unhealthy Foods

This might seem strange, but it works. For example, if your child will eat lots of potato chips or french fries, but turns down "real" potatoes, perhaps your child isn't realizing that she already eats potatoes.

For example, I've gotten our highly sensitive daughter to move from french fries to eating "Momma Fries." I take baked potatoes, slice them up into round slices after they've been refrigerated, and I fry them in a pan with a little bit of canola oil. I convinced her to try Momma Fries through telling her that they are made of potatoes, which are the same exact things potato chips and french fries are made of.

I also had equal success with getting her to try breaded chicken cutlets rather than relying on a steady diet of packaged chicken nuggets. I told her "It's like chicken nuggets, but they're made the special Momma way." Now she prefers Momma Chicken over the store bought chicken.

As a matter of fact, any time I put "Momma" in front of a food, my daughter associates it with good taste, so she is more willing to try it.

Associate Healthy Foods with Positive Outcomes

My daughter used to get a kick out of this: "Carrots are great for your eyeballs." This statement got my daughter to eat one of her first healthy foods, carrots.

You might have to remind your child a bunch of times the benefits of healthy food. For instance, if you pulled a major coupe and got your child to eat a banana before going to the playground, you can say the following: "Wow, you sure played a lot at the playground. It looks like you had a really great time! It must have been because of that banana you ate before we went. It gave you all the energy you needed to keep up with your friend and run around."

Or, if you want to get your kid to eat an orange, you can say, "You know, oranges will help you stay healthy and not get a cold."

Or, if your child goes through a growth spurt, you can say, "Wow, you grew an inch! It must be all that celery you at this month."

Make a Deal

Once your HSC is eating more healthy foods, make a deal to eat at least one healthy food per day, such as one fruit or one vegetable.

Ask this way: "What healthy food are you going to eat today?" Then give your child a choice out of the choices she will eat.

"Run Out" of Your Child's Favorite Processed Foods

Another way to encourage your HSC to eat healthy foods is to "run out" of the nonhealthy options.

For instance, try offering all the healthy options first before the unhealthy options. If you don't bring them up, they might not be on your child's mind.

Or, do run out of your child's favorites. For example, when we run out of cereal and little crackers in the shape of various animals, my daughter willingly eats celery with salt at night. It still gives her that crunch.

You can try this tactic when your child has at least five healthy foods she will eat.

Become a Salesperson

Being consistent in singing praises about healthy foods and putting down its competition, processed foods, in a natural, conversational way will help your child appreciate healthy foods over time.

Learning as much as you can about the foods you offer your child will help her become acquainted with its benefits.

On top of the benefits, have your children witness you eating great foods and enjoying them. For example, when you're eating an apple, you can say, "Hmmm. This apple is so sweet, crunchy, and cold. Do you want to try some?"

Be Consistent

You might have to reinforce healthy habits dozens, or even hundreds of times for your child's entire childhood or even well into the teenage years for all these tactics to be effective.

You might have to wait until your child is mature enough to appreciate what you're saying. Eventually, your child might want certain things, like having a more slender body. Around the age of ten, you might be able to help your child appreciate that healthy foods will help him or her get there.

Hang in there! The payoff is tremendous.

Even the pickiest of eaters can be encouraged to eat well if you give them the power to make their own choices.

Acknowledge Your Progress

It can be challenging to work with a HSC who is a picky eater. Moreover, their reasons for being picky are soundly based in their highly sensitive nervous systems. Highly sensitive children experience sensations on a very deep, profound level. Honoring their makeup as well as being appreciative of the smallest progress can help your child open up her pallet and try new foods.

Ask your child how "red" a watermelon slice tastes compared to a cherry and a strawberry.

Sum It Up

  • Highly sensitive children can be vulnerable to picking eating, not by choice, but because they experience stimuli on a deep level.
  • Highly sensitive children need understanding from parents that their reactions are not made up, but real and authentic to their child.
  • Highly sensitive children need to be shown that different doesn't mean bad.
  • Work with your highly sensitive child long-term and be patient.

How Do You Handle Your Highly Sensitive Child's Picky Eating?

When your child exhibits picky eating, do you:

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How have you overcome your highly sensitive child's picky eating habits?

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    • kiddiecreations profile image

      N Kiddie 5 months ago

      My three-year-old son is pretty picky about what he will eat. He has a handful of favorite foods that are good for him, as well as some processed snacks he likes, too. I like what you're saying about "running out" of your child's favorite processed foods. That is exactly what I've done with him recently. We ran out of goldfish crackers and cliff bars, so I just never bought any more. He asked about them at first, but now he's been asking for the healthier foods he likes, such as apples or a peanut butter shake. I think "running out" of the other items and not having them available at all is definitely working!