How many picky eaters do you know? These children typically have sensory issues with certain textures, shapes, flavors, smells or even color of food.
Frequently, the most pronounced picky eating patterns appear in children with special needs. Picky eating is common in children with autism, ADHD, and sensory processing disorder. To make matters worse, these children have special nutritional needs that make their parents and provider teams especially eager to feed them a nutrient-dense diet.
Read on to learn what you can do to nourish your child’s physical, emotional, and cognitive development while at the same time addressing any specific food attachments or aversions that may be getting in the way of success.
Setting up a food-positive framework
The intake appointment with most parents of children with picky eating patterns is often emotional. Parents are really eager to nourish their children. However, they also feel caught in the clutches of an eternal power struggle. Things can get intense in the world of picky eaters!
The first thing I tell parents is that there are four ingredients they must avoid at all costs. These are guilt, fear, worry and shame. Everything else is negotiable, unless the child has an intolerance or allergy to a particular food or an auto-immune condition. This is the starting point. Only when there is a strong emotional foundation can we really work on the deeper changes.
Leveraging small changes for big results
From there, I encourage the parents to start making nutritional changes using their child’s current diet as a starting point. The challenge here is to let go of the “shoulds” for now. Yes, at this point your child’s diet may look very different from our shared ideal. There is time take gentle steps. Below I offer some practical suggestions for parents and caregivers.
While on this journey toward improved nutrition, any step in the right direction, no matter how small, is a big achievement. Parents must give themselves, their child and their family all the credit they can. It’s easier to celebrate little achievements when the goal is steady improvement rather than perfection. Additionally, focusing on the miracle of each small step makes it easier to keep moving forward!
An emotionally intelligent approach
Does it surprise you to hear me urge you to be more relaxed about your child’s food? Yes, I know all about the nutritional needs of kids with ADHD, autism and sensory issues! Yet I’m also here to remind you how important the emotional component is. Within an emotionally intelligent framework, we can more easily promote healing and progress.
Is your child likely to benefit from a therapeutic diet such as the Feingold Diet, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, GAPS, or a gluten-free/casein-free diet (or some modification or combination of any of these)? Absolutely! Part of my job is to help you figure out which therapeutic diet is likeliest to work for your child in the long run. I customize all my nutrition plans, so any dietary framework is just a starting point for your child’s custom plan.
However, I also want to help you implement the plan realistically so your child can heal. Unfortunately, sudden shifts usually lead to power struggles. Rather, the practical strategies below will help change children’s taste buds and sensory perception over time. This eases the transition to one of these special diets and promotes lasting changes.
Understanding root causes
Some of the questions I address in the process of investigating the factor(s) that may be causing the child’s symptom pattern and the picky eating and what, consequently, can help clear it are:
- Are there any allergies or sensitivities to food, home/body care products or environmental stimuli?
- Has your child been exposed to toxins that the body is trying to clear through the skin and other organs of elimination?
- What nutrients are missing from your child’s diet?
- Are there functional deficiencies in digestion and absorption that are preventing the body from using nutrients present in the diet?
- Does your child have imbalances in the intestinal microbiota (the mix of microorganisms living in the gut, responsible for helping proper digestion, absorption, immunity and metabolism)?
Gut flora and picky eaters
One very significant cause of picky eating patterns in children with autism spectrum disorder, sensory processing disorder, ADHD and related conditions has to do with an imbalance in the gut flora. In other words, overgrowth of unfriendly bacteria and yeasts changes the child’s experience of taste and texture. This often leads to cravings for the very foods that feed the unfriendly microorganisms. In turn, this perpetuates your child’s digestive, emotional, developmental and behavioral symptoms.
Common cravings driven by an imbalance in the gut flora are for foods high in sugar, gluten, dairy, processed flour and other starches. Less common ones are also possible. A couple of parents have told me that their children would only eat meat, and one mother said her son would only eat gazpacho!
Cravings and aversions
In addition to specific cravings, we often see aversions. Some children love crunchy foods. Others really dislike them because they have an auditory processing issue that makes the crunching sound seem painfully loud as they chew. Be patient with your child’s texture and taste aversions. They may drive you crazy, but remember that it’s hard for your child, too!
Another very common problem I see in many of my clients is zinc deficiency. Low body stores of this important trace mineral can reduce appetite. Zinc deficiency can impair digestion and change the perception of smell and taste. This can definitely cause finicky eating habits. In these cases, I have had great results supplementing the diet with a low-dose, high-quality liquid zinc supplement that will taste just like water (or may even taste sweet) to the child as long as the zinc need continues.
Other mineral deficiencies can definitely turn up, and can be driven by heavy metal toxicity resulting from a combination of genetic susceptibility and exposures, whether known or unknown, that deplete the body’s stores of essential minerals and vitamin co-factors.
Practical tips for parents of children with ADHD
- Add new foods to your child’s diet before taking anything away.
- Add bone broth to your child’s rice, quinoa, polenta and other grain dishes, and to casseroles. Start by replacing a small amount of the cooking water with bone broth and increase over time.
- Try adding sauerkraut juice, beet kvass or chickpea, adzuki bean, cannellini bean or lentil miso to any soups, casseroles, or even grain dishes. Add to warm, not boiling, foods and start with just a smidgeon. Increase gradually so your child’s taste buds can reset.
- Struggling to get more bone broth into your child? Try the recipe for split pea soup crackers and/or for bone broth gelatin.
- Homemade sourdough pancakes are a great way to get your child to consume healthy fats and vegetables. Make a gluten-free sourdough starter, and combine fresh grated carrot, beet, turnip or radish with a beaten egg, some sourdough starter, and a pinch of sea salt. Mix well and fry in coconut oil, lard or red palm oil.
- If your child loves certain types of fruit, make gelatin snacks, in a coconut milk or specific herbal tea base that incorporates your child’s favorite fruit (berries can be left whole, while larger fruit should be diced).
- Does your child has a favorite shape or a favorite animal? Get cookie cutters in that shape and use them to make homemade pizza more appealing. You can get cookie cutters that spell out the child’s name as well. Also explore various gelatin molds. You can then make gelatin snacks and other snacks in your child’s favorite shapes and get them more excited to try a new food.
- No matter how exhausted you feel at this point in the process, stay as joyful and creative as you can. I’ll never forget the story of one mother whose child always refused broth and other soupy foods – until he picked out a special spoon at the store that he loved, and began using it to eat the foods he had formerly despised.