How Can Coaching Help Picky Eaters?
J Julia DeNey

How Can Coaching Help Picky Eaters?

Mar 13, 2024

Picky eating is more than just a phase for some children; it's a hurdle that affects their nutritional intake and family meal times. For children with sensory processing challenges, including those within the autism community, the texture, taste, color, and smell of food can significantly impact their willingness to eat. This is where sensory coaching comes into play, offering a bridge between their current preferences and a broader, more nutritionally diverse diet. To learn more, we spoke with Brenda Chilstom, pediatric occupational therapist and feeding specialist and founder of That Makes Sense OT. Here is what she had to say. 

The Role of Sensory Coaching

Sensory coaching is an innovative approach that caters to the unique sensory needs of each child. By understanding and respecting these needs, coaches can devise strategies that gradually introduce new textures and flavors without overwhelming the child. For instance, a child accustomed to smooth purees might find it challenging to transition to more textured foods. Sensory coaching aims to develop their oral motor skills through targeted activities, making mealtime a less daunting experience.

Moreover, children who prefer bland, beige, or brown foods often lack the oral motor skills needed for a varied diet. These preferences typically lean towards highly processed foods, which are easier to chew but nutritionally lacking. Sensory coaching can identify these patterns and introduce exercises to enhance chewing and swallowing abilities, thereby expanding the child's food repertoire.

Bridging Sensory Gaps

One of the primary strategies in sensory coaching is to start with what the child is already comfortable with and gradually bridge the gap to new foods. For example, if a child enjoys McDonald's french fries, a sensory coach might introduce veggie straws along with the fries as a visually and texturally similar alternative. This step-by-step approach allows the child to explore new foods at their own pace, reducing mealtime stress and anxiety.

Supporting Neurodiverse Children

Children with autism and other neurodiverse conditions often face additional challenges at mealtime due to sensory sensitivities. Sensory coaching for these children includes creating routines that prepare them for eating, such as engaging in whole-body movements or oral motor activities before meals. These routines help organize their sensory systems, making them more receptive to sitting down and eating.

Sensory coaching offers a tailored approach to overcoming picky eating, particularly for children with sensory processing challenges. By focusing on the child's current preferences and gradually introducing new foods, sensory coaches can help expand their diet in a comfortable and supportive way. This not only improves their nutritional intake but also makes mealtime a more enjoyable experience for both children and their families.

About Brenda Chilstrom, OTR/L

Brenda Chilstrom is a seasoned pediatric occupational therapist with over 30 years of experience, specializing in sensory and feeding challenges. After working in various settings, including schools, early intervention, and specialized centers, she founded her own business, That Makes Sense OT, in 2007 to provide focused support to children in need. Brenda's commitment to her specialty is underscored by her continuous education in feeding and sensory integration. Now based in Naples, FL, she offers private practice services to preschools and homes, aiming to enhance community awareness about sensory needs and promote independence and well-being in children. She also does online coaching for feeding and sensory processing. Brenda is also an advocate for using supportive tools, such as compression vests, to aid children's sensory integration, helping them to feel more grounded and secure. Her work is dedicated to ensuring every child can become the curious being they were always meant to be.

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