Is Your Child a Picky Eater? They May be a Highly Sensitive Person

A picky eater child with a bowl of cereal who may be a highly sensitive person

Like adults, children have their preferences when it comes to food. They know what they like and what they don’t. But then there’s that whole other category known as the “picky eater.” I once met a family whose six-year-old refused to eat anything but hot dogs and tangerines! I later wondered what gave this child such specific food preferences. Could fussy eating habits have something to do with being a budding young highly sensitive person (HSP)?  

A child’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli constitutes one of many indicators of an HSP, according to Dr. Elaine Aron. In her book The Highly Sensitive Child, Aron explains how roughly 20% of the population have a more sensitive nervous system, and therefore tend to be more affected by sensory stimulation. Further research suggests that HSPs process experiences more deeply than other people, and are therefore prone to overstimulation.

With heightened aromas, textures, temperatures, and flavors that can either appease or tease your palate, eating is a sensory experience. It’s also a primal need that invokes an array of emotional responses. There’s a reason, after all, why we tend to eat meals alongside those nearest and dearest to us — eating can make us feel vulnerable.

Is Your Picky Eater an HSP?

Nearly every child refuses to eat certain foods, but when it becomes an extreme aversion, it might help to understand your child through an HSP lens. Not every HSP is a picky eater (or a “super taster” — more on that in a minute), but it’s worth exploring whether there’s a correlation between the two. Knowing the “why” behind your child’s behavior may help clarify your response as a parent. 

To start, think about the consistency of the food your child prefers. HSPs can be sensitive to certain textures and consistencies. If the food you cook is either too mushy, too undercooked, too smooth, or not blended enough, your child may be reacting to that on a sensory level. Try asking your little one if a certain consistency is undesirable for them. 

Now think about flavor. If your child’s preferences lean toward white rice without sauce, plain noodles, or other bland meals, they may be reacting based on their heightened sensitivity. Children who experience taste and smell more intensely than others may keep their senses on alert and on guard. In fact, research conducted by University of Florida Professor Linda Bartoshuk found that a subsection of the participants — referred to as “super tasters” — were individuals with powerful taste receptors who experience food in a very intense way.

With all of that in mind, how can you help your budding HSP learn to love their food? Here are five tried and true methods to take meal time to a whole new level. 

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5 Ways to Help Your Child Learn to Love Different Foods

1. Ask without judging

To better understand your child’s eating patterns, start by asking them what they like about their favorite dish based on its texture, consistency, and flavors. You may be surprised by their answer and how it relates to overstimulation. They may be drawn to simpler flavors, while you prefer indulging in exotic spices. Then again, they may hate the strange, squishy consistency of tomatoes, while it’s your favorite sandwich topper. There’s a lot to be learned from the context of stimulation, but it starts by asking and listening.

2. Work with their senses — not against them

Similar to a food’s composition, it can be useful to use the five developed senses to help your child get used to the novelty of different foods, according to many speech language pathologists. Take smell, for instance: Get in there! Take time to smell food with your child, discussing what it reminds you of. This becomes particularly important if your child is accustomed to eating more bland foods. Does the aroma remind you of a distant memory? Be careful, though: The sense of smell can trigger many pleasant and unpleasant emotions, so inquire with your child about their favorite smells first.

As for sight, you can turn the discussion of what a food looks like into a simple imagining game. Have a stew with potatoes and carrots on the menu? You may use this as an opportunity to share that both vegetables are grown underground, and that the only parts of the carrots that are visible for most of the growing cycle are the fringy green tops. Explore what certain colors invoke in your child — you may even learn that they really do enjoy looking at green-colored vegetables! 

If your child prefers certain textures, work with them on touch. Dissections are not only reserved for science experiments — they are also appropriate for the dinner table! Take turns with your child “dissecting” their meal by cutting, stirring, mixing, and mushing. If your meal has many hidden layers, say a lasagna, allow your child to see how you prepare each one and encourage them to get more hands-on during that stage. 

3. Don’t forget to feed yourself

As parents, we become accustomed to making sure the mouths around us are fed, while watering down or completely ignoring our own needs. It may not always feel as though there’s enough time to keep yourself fed and healthy, but it’s so important, especially from the perspective of modeling. Your little one looks up to you. It’s essential to model good behavior by feeding yourself the same meals while expressing how satisfying they are to your child.

4. Cook together

When I first moved away from home in my early 20s, I instantly regretted not learning how to cook sooner. If you teach your child the valuable lesson of cooking during their childhood, their fate need not be pizza and ramen noodles as they grow into teenagers and adults. Plus, cooking is such a fantastic family bonding activity — it’s experiential, practical, and loving, while allowing you to demonstrate to your picky eater that they have agency over making decisions that will help them feel good. 

5. Turn to the experts

If you’re worried that your picky eater doesn’t get the nutrients they need to grow, you can ask your family physician for a referral to a specialist. These specialists often consist of speech language pathologists, dieticians, pediatricians, and occupational therapists. Each one can help guide you in the right direction with your dilemma. Local health clinics also often host regular community groups for picky eaters, so you can pick up some tips and support as well.

No matter what, do not give up! There is help available for picky eaters who may be developing as HSPs and ample research on best practices. Consider this experience a lesson. If your child is developing into an HSP, it’s important that you know now so you can best support them in the future. You may be interested in learning how to raise a highly sensitive child as well as a teenager, because once your child gets to those stages, they will need your help more than they think they do. 

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