The Special Needs Mom: Picky Eating

We all know this story far too well. You spend time planning, shopping, preparing, and cooking a nutritious meal for your kids only to have them refuse to touch it or toss it on the floor. You ask for advice from others who have been there before you and you're bound to find at least one person who says “Just wait it out… Eventually they’ll get hungry enough and eat what you’ve given them”.

Sounds logical, right?

Unfortunately, that’s not the case with some children.

When my daughter first started eating solid food, she was the best eater. She would eat anything! She scarfed down peas like they were M&M's. She sucked on green beans and carrots as if they were lollipops. She had never even seen anything fried or processed. Then when she was about 2 years old everything changed. Gradually, she eliminated food after food from her diet until there was almost nothing left. One day, I prepped three large containers of steamed sweet potato cubes for over an hour and that was the day that she decided that she no longer liked sweet potatoes. I tried the “waiting her out” idea and she would literally just stop eating for days. It was pure torture for both of us. Luckily, one things she didn’t eliminate was pasta with red sauce. So I was able to puree veggies and get her to eat them that way.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any harder, my son came. I’m the oldest of many cousins, have a younger sister, worked in a daycare for a while, and work with babies at my church. Clark, however, is the pickiest eater I’ve ever come up against by a landslide. Right now, the only thing he will eat consistently is macaroni and cheese. He literally puts his hands over his mouth and chants the word “no” continuously if you even present him with any other food. Then comes the pleading to take “just one bite” to see if he likes it which has to be done in a specific way or he just swipes everything onto the floor screaming. I was also worried that my fighting to get him to put the food in his mouth was creating a negative association with that food, because it was such a terrible experience for both of us. As much as I try to keep my frustration in, I know I can be less than graceful at times. I don’t know why or if this is true for other moms out there, but something about my kids throwing food onto the floor (and splashing water out of the bathtub) gets to me like nothing else in this world. Every single "ting" of a Cheerio or "splat" of pasta makes my skin crawl. When they were tiny babies and made a mess because their aim for their mouth or ability to use utensils still needed a little work, it didn’t bother me one bit. I just got one of those mats you put under the highchair, stripped them down to a diaper, and said, "have at it", but now they are throwing it down there on purpose, so that they don’t have to eat it. I used to try bribing them. That worked some of the time, but usually made them fill up on whatever the bribery food was.

Finally, we tried food therapy. This is a super long drawn out process where you introduce a new food to your child through a series of steps. Say you want your child to try strawberries. First you put a strawberry on their plate with whatever food they will eat. They don’t have to eat or even acknowledge its existence. They simply need to leave it on their plate for the duration of the meal. At the next meal you put the same strawberry (or a new one that looks very similar, if the old one is getting yucky) on their plate with a meal and all they have to do is touch it with their finger. Then you do it again and this time they have to smell it. The next time they have to lick it. At the fifth meal they have to put the strawberry in their mouth, but even if they spit it out it is still considered a success for that step of the therapy. Finally during the last meal they have to chew and swallow one small piece of the strawberry. This doesn’t mean they will actually like and continue to eat strawberries, but it does mean that they’ve tried it and you know for sure that they really don’t like it, versus just having an aversion to trying new things.

Sounds crazy, right?

Nope. It’s AMAZING!!!

Some speech therapists even specialize in this type of therapy and will help you through the process, but there will be homework, because no one can afford to have a therapist with them at every meal. As with everything, consistency is key. It’s still not perfect, but both of my kids are actually eating more than macaroni and cheese! My favorite thing about it, is that it works for most children, not just those with special needs. The concept is that after the 5 or 6th meal of the food being present on the plate, it’s no longer “new” to the child and, therefore, less scary to try.

See LH's Little List of SLPs/Feeding therapists HERE.


Megan is a stay at home mom of two au-some kids & the co-director of the Hoboken Special Needs Parents Group. Her daughter Aurora (4) attends the Pre-K ABA program at Wallace. Her son, Clark, is receiving services through early intervention. Both children are extremely active and always keep Megan on her toes! When she and her husband moved to Hoboken, they were blown away by the help they received from the Hoboken School District. You can also find Megan in her role as the children’s ministry leader at Hoboken Grace Church.