Eating issues seem to be a very common complaint among caregivers of children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). When my daughter, Jaimie, was very young, she was a little more willing to try different foods. But as she got older she started refusing to eat what we gave her. Sometimes it had to do with the smell or the texture or even just how it looked on her plate. It got to the point where she gagged when we merely mentioned a certain type of food. And there were many meals where she threw up right at the dinner table when we tried encouraging her to give something a try. What she was willing to eat dwindled to next to nothing and we were concerned that she wasn’t getting enough nutrients in her tiny body. So, you can imagine when she did eat something, how excited we were. Then we ended up giving that new favored food every day-exactly how she ate it in the first place so we knew she’d eat it. But after awhile, she started refusing that food too.
When your child prefers to eat the same foods prepared the same way every day (or at every meal), it’s called a ‘food jag’. According to Dr. Kay A. Toomey, the problem with food jags is that a child ends up getting bored of his preferred foods and then starts rejecting those foods as well. Toomey states that once a child rejects the foods he’s been jagging on, “…these foods are lost out of his food range permanently.” This is a dangerous cycle because the child could eliminate foods until she barely has anything left in her eating repertoire.
There are two steps you can take to prevent food jags:
(1) Break the habit. Don’t give your child any particular food every day, only every other day. For example, Jaimie and Xander’s favorite food is pasta. To break our food jag cycle, we started by serving a different form of carbohydrates every second day instead of pasta, such as potatoes or rice.
(2) Make small changes to preferred foods. Children should have a wide enough food range that they’re eating three different foods at each of five (that would be breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks) meals across two days. If this isn’t the situation for your child, then you should try changing at least one sensory property in his preferred food every time you serve it. That means the color, shape, texture, temperature or taste. You don’t want to make changes that are so different that he’ll refuse to eat it. Only make a just noticeable difference (see below).
Suggestions for changes include:
Shape: cut his sandwich in a different shape or with a cookie cutter.
Color: use a ‘friendly’ food coloring
Taste: add a new flavoring to the preferred food using spices/herbs, cheese, condiments or butter. Xander, for example, loves cream cheese. His OT gave him an herb cream cheese instead during one his eating exercises and he liked it. Jaimie loves syrup on her pancakes so we switch the type of syrup, such as blueberry or vanilla.
Texture: make the apple sauce thicker or add tiny chunks of fruit to it; give him an egg that is sunny-side down or scrambled instead of fried.
Temperature: serve the pasta as pasta salad (eg: cool/cold with a bit of parmesan on it) instead of warm or serve a veggie raw or frozen instead of steamed or boiled.
Just remember that however you choose to change the food, make the change as small as possible. This is called the ‘Just Noticaeable Difference’. Your ‘sensational’ child may resist any sort of change to his food and may notice even the slightest change. The goal is to make the change tolerable where he’ll detect it but it will still be okay with eating it. You’ll definitely need to do some experimentation to figure out what that ‘Just Noticeable Difference’ is for your child. Dr. Toomey says that your child should act like he notices the changes but that he’s okay with them. If your child falls apart when eating or being presented with the altered food, the change you’ve made is too big and you’ll have to scale the change down for next time.
Food jags can be frustrating and even worrisome but with tiny baby steps, and a lot of patience, you can manage them. And who knows? Perhaps those tiny changes you make to the preferred foods will lead to trying new foods down the road.
Kay A. Toomey, PhD’s article called, “Management of Food Jags, Copyright, 2002.