Play It Forward Therapy

How Occupational Therapy Helps Picky Eaters


  • Do you have a picky eater at home? 
  • Does your child eat fewer than 30 different kinds of foods? 
  • Less than 20?
  • Does your child avoid entire food groups all together?  

If you answered yes, to any of the above you’re in the right place!  Occupational therapists can teach picky eaters and problem feeders how to increase the variety of foods in their diet.  OTs are also helpful when it comes to providing you with helpful mealtime strategies.

What is Feeding Therapy in Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapists who specialize in feeding therapy understand that the key to mealtime success is creating a positive experience for the child in a secure, low-pressure environment.  Occupational Therapy treatment can help kids with picky eating habits and strong sensory-based food preferences to expand the types of foods they eat.

The primary aim of sensory-based feeding therapy is to help children broaden their range of foods within their diet. These therapy sessions do not emphasize caloric intake or quantity but instead focus on gradually introducing new foods, tastes, and textures while enhancing tolerance for unfamiliar or less favored foods.

Before starting any feeding therapy program, it’s important to identifying any potential food allergies and ensure there is no risk of choking.

The truth is…Feeding therapy is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.

Did you know that there are 29 steps to Eating? Taking small, incremental steps, such as bringing the food close to the lips, licking it, taking a nibble, chewing, and eventually swallowing, are just a few of the many steps towards a successful eating experience. Keep in mind to start with small steps, exercise patience, maintain a relaxed atmosphere, and respect your child’s pace.

Keep in mind, the long-term goals of occupational therapy feeding sessions are for your child to incorporate new foods into their diet, improving their overall health and nutrition. There may also be objectives related to behaviors and habits during mealtimes and cultural expectations. Let’s simplify feeding therapy and outline the role of occupational therapy and supporting successful mealtimes.

Building Up Tolerance

Some children have such restricted food preferences that the therapy begins with merely tolerating the presence of the food in the room, on the plate, its smell, and appearance. It’s important to note that before a new food is even tasted, allowing exploration and interaction with it is crucial. The initial goal is to foster interaction with the food, not immediate ingestion. Children can interact with new foods by assisting in food preparation, pretending to conduct food experiments like scientists, or creating fun recipes.


Your Child’s Safe Food Zones

Many children with feeding issues often stick to their “safe foods,” which typically include bland or beige options such as bread, rolls, tortillas, and crackers. While these foods can provide essential nutrients, it’s essential to note that they lack the variety found in colorful fruits and vegetables.  They are considered safe food zones because kids know what to expect with each bite when it comes to texture and taste.

For instance, let’s consider the texture of a dinner roll. It remains consistent throughout the entire roll. Now, contrast that with eating a handful of blueberries. Here, not only does the size of each blueberry vary, but you may also experience a different flavor profile with each berry you try. Some may be sweet and delightful, while others might be tart and sour.

This unpredictability can make eating certain types of foods more challenging or perhaps even “scary” to try, especially for picky eaters.

Oral Motor Skills Are A Prerequisite

Before you start any type of feeding therapy program, it’s crucial to ensure that the foods you want your child to try are developmentally appropriate for their oral motor skills.  For example, a soup consists of liquid and various sized chunks of meat or veggies.  This type of mixed texture is the most difficult to manage from an oral motor perspective.  In contrast, foods with a consistent texture throughout are easier to manage on the developmental food continuum, especially if they are soft, mashable, melt or dissolve easily in the mouth. This is an area where the developmental expertise of an OT can help you better understand the possible reasons why your child is rejecting certain types of textures of foods. 

The ABC of Texture

Texture plays a significant role in feeding therapy. Some textures are easy to chew, disintegrate readily, and demand less effort. Popular foods with children, such as muffins, mac and cheese, and chicken nuggets, often share what we call an “ABC texture” or “Already Been Chewed” texture. From an oral motor perspective, these mashed textures require less effort to chew. Picky eaters generally prefer predictable textures where each bite tastes the same, as opposed to foods with variations, which can make eating more challenging.

Food Chaining Is a Link to Feeding Therapy Success

An essential aspect of feeding therapy is food chaining, which provides a child-friendly approach to therapy. It encourages children to try foods they already consistently eat or currently enjoy and gradually modify them. For instance, you can start with a preferred food and alter its appearance, like changing its shape. This helps expand the child’s food repertoire. Explain to your child that the bread remains bread, even if its shape differs, or that an apple remains an apple whether it’s sliced or cubed.

Try Food Pairing For A Winning Combo

Food pairing involves pairing a preferred food with a complementary taste. Dipping foods is an example of an occupational therapy feeding concept called Food Pairing. A fun way to introduce new flavors is by taking a familiar food and dipping it into a sauce. Kids often enjoy dipping foods because it gives them control over how much they dip while allowing them to explore new flavors and tastes. Incorporating play-based ideas, like imagining the breadstick going for a swim or adding silly sound effects, can make this activity even more enjoyable. Preferred foods like breadsticks can be dipped into marinara or chicken nuggets into various sauces like ketchup, BBQ sauce, honey, ranch dressing, mustard, and more.  If they take a taste of the sauce or a new flavor paired with a preferred food, consider it a success!

Three Reasons Why Snack Ideas Work Well for Feeding Therapy:

Reason #1. They make interacting with new foods fun and novel

Reason #2. They begin with kid-friendly ingredients

Reason #3. They provide a safe space to explore new foods while fostering conversations about sensory aspects such as color, shape, texture, smell, and taste.

Check out more feeding therapy recipes or make these snacks at home. CLICK ON THE IMAGES BELOW.

These snack ideas have been “OT Tested and Kid Approved” by kids in the Play It Forward Therapy Kitchen.

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