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Beyond Picky :: The Fine Line Between Picky Eating and Sensory Issues

Every kid is picky about some foods, right? They refuse to eat vegetables, they turn up their noses at dishes with any type of sauce or spice, or heaven forbid their food touches! That’s "normal," we're told. But how do you know the difference between a normal kid who is just being a picky eater and a child with real sensory issues? I’ll tell you from experience, it’s difficult to know, and there can be a very fine line between the two.

The Fine Line Between Picky Eating and Sensory Issues

When my oldest child was a baby, he was what one would call a “good eater”. He drank more milk than what was typical for his age, he accepted new foods eagerly when we introduced solids, and he was gaining weight consistently. By the time he was one year old, he was eating age-appropriate foods like mac n cheese, chicken nuggets, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and spaghetti. Though he wasn’t keen on vegetables, he loved most fruits, and got plenty of nutrients between the other food items he liked and the multi-vitamin his pediatrician had recommended.

4 months - holding my own bottle
Those cheeks! Clearly he wasn't starved....


16 months - dinnertime
Eating right off his Daddy's plate!

Over the next 6-12 months, this all changed.  While his palate had never been progressive by any means, my son’s repertoire of foods slimmed down dramatically. He began refusing items that he had once liked and would have an all-out tantrum if we attempted to have him try something unfamiliar. I vividly remember a standoff in the Dairy Queen parking lot involving a piece of ham. I'm pretty sure we are both still traumatized from that event! I resorted to sneaking veggies into his foods (thanks to Jessica Seinfeld), but wondered if that was really accomplishing anything if he didn’t even know he was eating it.

With the arrival of my youngest only 20 months after my son was born, I surrendered the food fight and for the next three years, fed him only the things I was sure he would eat. Other than snack-type foods, his main diet consisted of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chicken nuggets, cheese and crackers, yogurt, bananas and apples. Period. My pediatrician blew off my concerns saying he was growing as expected and that his diet was considered healthy overall. If he wasn’t worried, why should I be, right?


We mamas know when something isn’t right. We feel it in our gut and we know it in our hearts. When my son turned five, I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I worried that he would never get to enjoy birthday parties or sleepovers if he kept up these behaviors. I started reading online about kids with a hypersensitivity to food, which caused anxiety over things that had different textures, temperatures, or smells. They called it "oral defensiveness." A lot of what I read sounded like my son, although a lot of it sounded a lot worse, too. Out of fear that things could decline even further as he aged, I made an appointment with a local occupational therapist as advised by so many online sources.  That appointment changed everything.

For one, I felt a lot less crazy and alone, and two, a lot less guilty for having "given in" to his dietary demands for so long.  The occupational therapist told me that my son, while to a much lesser degree than many, had definite sensory issues with food and would require occupational therapy in order to remedy his eating habits.

Over the next 3-4 months, we saw the occupational therapist weekly. I watched as she stuck strange apparatuses in my son’s mouth, encouraged him to taste new flavors, and celebrated what seemed like trivial progress. We eagerly agreed to lure my son to try new foods at home with a concept called "food chaining."  Then one day, she brought me in after his appointment and said he had "graduated" from the program and was ready to do the rest of the work on his own.

It’s been three years and during that time, he has made vast improvements.

october - big boy hamburger
Eating a gourmet hamburger the size of his head and finishing every last bite


november - soccer tournament
Smiling at a foot long corn dog he's about to devour


august 2015 (24)
Polishing off my order of fried crab claws

He eats cheeseburgers, pizza (with light sauce), corn dogs, roasted chicken, steak, mashed potatoes, and other things I never would have believed prior to occupational therapy.  He is still hesitant with new foods and his taste buds are less than adventurous, but he is no worse than any other kid his age for the most part. While this may not be the outcome every parent would want, I can say with certainty that I am more than satisfied.  I know he will always struggle, but it will get better as he gets older, and that is a huge comfort to me.

So to the mom who is worried about their child who seems unnaturally picky about food: talk to your pediatrician. And if your concerns are dismissed, but you aren’t ready to concede, I hope you’ll ask around for the name of an occupational therapist that can offer you some insight.

Because sometimes, it is just a normal kid being a picky eater.  But when it’s more, there’s hope. Listen to your gut, Mama.

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