What’s the difference between a picky eater and a sensory eater? 

What’s the difference between a picky eater and a sensory eater? 

Most parents have likely thought their child was a picky eater at some point. It’s normal for kids to go through phases where they’re more or less picky during periods of growth and as their taste buds develop. In some cases, picky eating is less about the food, and more about the sensory experience of that food.

The term “picky eaters” typically describes children who consume a limited number of foods and/or have multiple food aversions. Sometimes, picky behaviors can contribute to nutrient deficiencies, impacting the child’s growth and development. The difference between picky eaters and children with sensory eating issues is that certain foods trigger sensory overload for the former and not the later.

Some additional signs that picky eating is related to sensory issues include: 

  • Gagging at the sight, taste, touch, or smell of foods.
  • Having preferences towards foods that have a specific texture (ex. crunchy or soft) or requests for
    certain brands, colors, or flavors of food.
  • Avoiding getting their hands or face messy during meals or at other activities like playing outside
    or with craft materials.
  • Excessively chewing on nonfood items after the age of 18 months.
  • Avoiding tight fitting clothing or on the other extreme, wearing more layers than is necessary to
    increase their sense of proprioception.
  • Refusing to eat with certain utensils or dishware.
  • Children who are hyposensitive may gravitate towards foods that are stimulating like very spicy
    foods or overfill their mouths in order to “feel the food”. 

Imagine a sound, flavor, or sensation that feels like nails on a chalkboard to you. That’s what your child experiences with certain foods or textures. This means they may choose not to eat to avoid the physical and/or mental pain associated with that food. That’s where the argument that they’ll eat when they’re hungry enough falls short. Most of us would rather be hungry than experience pain. Over time, their avoidance and fear around certain foods may morph into other behaviors like anxiety or fear around meal times or food in general.

The distinction must be made between a picky eater and a sensory eater for the sake of the child and their caretakers. If your child is a sensory eater, it’s important to remember that certain foods are making them physically uncomfortable and continuing to force that food will likely lead to frustration and overwhelm for all parties. Read on for strategies to address your child’s sensory eating preferences.

How do sensory issues impact eating?

Eating is an entirely sensory experience that involves smell, sight, taste, and texture. Sensitivity to each of these varies from child to child, but each input to their sensory system can lead to overload. Tack on a loud restaurant, bright lights, and new foods and your child may become overstimulated! 

What is “normal” picky eating?

It’s important to remember that not all kids’ eating behaviors are a sign of a sensory processing issue. It’s ‘normal’ for kids to:

  • Try new food sometimes, but not always.
  • Say they don’t like the food (sometimes before even trying).
  • Gravitate towards highly processed foods and away from vegetables and proteins.
  • Sometimes eat very little and sometimes eat a lot.
  • Like one food today but not tomorrow, or go through cycles of liking/disliking foods.
  • Be hesitant or resistant to trying new foods.
    Kids will naturally move through phases with eating, but picky eating related to sensory issues is not ‘just a phase’. Fortunately, there are things we can do to support your child’s eating journey! 

What can you do?

First and foremost, avoid pressuring your child as much as possible. They already have fear and anxiety associated with eating, and adding pressure will likely make things worse. The more you push, the more likely they are to dig in. Instead, validate their experience! Tell them you understand how hard it is for them to eat certain things and talk to them about what may help.

Start small and go slow!

Resist the urge to have them try a new food every day or every meal. Instead, offer several foods they consistently accept and one new item at a time. It’s unlikely your child will accept the new food immediately or go from hating avocados to loving them in one sitting. Aim to slowly introduce a new food in less intimidating ways. For example, if you want them to eat avocado, try this progression. 

  • Start with something they like such as green peas.
  • On the next day, offer peas that are cooked super soft.
  • Then offer peas cooked super soft and mashed.
  • Follow that with avocado that’s mashed into a similar texture.
  • Finally, offer avocado chunks.
  • This type of slow integration allows them to ease into it rather than throwing them into the deep end! It increases the chances they’ll try something new if it isn’t brand new.

Another approach is to have a “trying plate” of new foods with one or more meals a day. Serve a meal they typically enjoy and set the trying plate nearby so they can decide if they’re up for trying something new. You may even nibble on something from the trying plate and talk about how yummy it is! This gives them the chance to be in control of when and if they take on a new challenge.

Make food fun and get them involved!

The degree of involvement will vary based on your child, but the goal is to create opportunities for them to interact with food. Some kid friendly food activities include:

  • Flipping through a cookbook together and having them select items that look yummy.
  • Taking them to the grocery store (if this is reasonable for you/your child).
  • Purchasing kid friendly knives so they can help chop. These are a great, affordable option.
  • Stirring ingredients together.
  • Selecting toppings for their meals and snacks.
  • Assembling their own meals/snacks from items you offer.
  • Using fun cookie cutters to create shapes out of their food.
  • Picking a sauce or condiment so they have something within their control when you introduce a new food.
  • Cooking together when possible. And when it isn’t possible, try having them stand at the counter so they’re able to observe!

Finally, make sure the food looks good! We’re all more likely to enjoy food that’s presented in an appealing way. Let the eating experience be fun, laidback and as low stakes as possible. If they try something new, great! Celebrate that win but don’t go overboard. If they don’t try something new, that’s okay too! Try to have low expectations and neutral reactions.

Lean into what they do like.

If there are flavors they prefer, do your best to make those an option at every meal. Texture is often a barrier for sensory eaters, so lean into the textures they do like. If they prefer a smooth texture, blend or mash cooked vegetables, make chicken salad with pureed chicken, offer smoothies and yogurt with mashed fruit for snacks. Build off the textures, tastes, or colors they are readily accepting so that you’re offering familiar things and introducing new items. Remember it’s a delicate balance and it’s okay if it isn’t perfect every time!

Leaning into what they like goes for the environment, too. Consider dimming the lights if they are overstimulated by visual sensations, playing soft music, or anything else that may help reduce their general arousal levels and facilitate their ability to tolerate the sensory stressors presented by food1. A calm environment can do wonders for easing the anxiety around meal time.

Explore sensory activities outside of meal times.

Let them get messy! At first, this may be overstimulating to them. But you’re helping desensitize them over time. For example, if they have an aversion to slimy foods, let them use their hands to play with bananas or jello. Use a vibrating toothbrush and encourage them to brush their tongue, cheeks, and roof of their mouth or play in a sensory bin several times a week. Here are some other creative sensory activities that may support their eating habits

Set a meal/snack schedule and stick to it!

Letting your child have a handful of chips 20 minutes before dinner only sets them up for failure. We want them to come to the table hungry. Offering well-rounded meals and snacks will support this endeavor by keeping them full in between meals.

Part of scheduling their meals is also knowing when to let it go. You don’t want to let the resistance go on forever and thoroughly traumatize everyone! Give it 15 minutes and if they’re still resistant, take a five minute break and return. If they remain resistant, offer a backup meal that’s the same every time. They’ll learn that you may say “you don’t have to eat it” to de-escalate the power struggle, and that doesn’t mean you are going to make them whatever they want.

Model the behavior you want them to have.

If you want them to eat more vegetables, try eating more vegetables in front of them. If you want them to eat slowly and calmly, do the same yourself. If a meal can be ruined by their food touching, let your items regularly come into contact or show them that they can push that food to the side and calmly carry on. They’re looking at you and taking in more than you might think! 

Try, try, and try again!

Remember that it may take up to 15 offerings before a child might accept a new food2. Expect appetite and preference fluctuations and keep at it! 

Nutritional Considerations: 

If you have a sensory eater who is extremely picky, your focus is most likely on getting them to eat anything. That’s okay! When and if you have the resources to focus on the quality of their food, I’d encourage you to prioritize blood sugar friendly meals that contain protein, fat, and fiber to support mood regulation, energy, sleep, and a healthy metabolism. Here’s a (non exhaustive) breakdown of which foods go in each category: 

-Greek yogurt
-Tofu, tempeh, edamame
-Olive oil, olives
-Nut butters and nuts
-Chia, hemp, pumpkin seeds -Salmon
-Coconut oil, coconut butter -Cheese
-All vegetables
-Winter squash, sweet potatoes -Nuts and seeds
-Whole grains: brown rice, rolled oats
-Beans and lentils (also protein!) -Fruit

Another way to make healthy eating fun is to make a game out of how many different colors they can have on their plate! For some kids, this may be really challenging so start with two colors. Explain that different colors have different nutrients and their bodies need them to be strong and healthy! If your child’s food repertoire is so limited that you’re worried about nutrient deficiencies, I’d encourage you to reach out to a qualified nutrition specialist. 


In short, feeding another human being is hard! Especially when there are sensory processing issues at play. Remember that you get to decide when and where they eat and they decide how much and what to eat. Do your best to meet your child where they’re at, set consistent boundaries to help them hone into their eating habits, and foster a sense of curiosity around food. Things might not change overnight, but small wins are still wins! 


  1. Cermak SA, Curtin C, Bandini LG. Food selectivity and sensory sensitivity in children with autism spectrum disorders. J Am Diet Assoc. 2010;110(2):238-246. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2009.10.032
  2. Green RJ, Samy G, Miqdady MS, et al. How to Improve Eating Behaviour during Early Childhood. Pediatr Gastroenterol Hepatol Nutr. 2015;18(1):1-9. doi:10.5223/pghn.2015.18.1.1

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I am…
Erika Krumbeck, ND, FABNP
Erika Krumbeck

Dr. Erika Krumbeck is the proud founder and editor of, the leading internet source for trustworthy natural health information for children and naturopathic pediatric providers. She is also the owner of Montana Whole Health, a primary care naturopathic practice in Missoula, MT. She is one of few doctors with the FABNP designation, meaning she is a board-certified pediatric naturopathic physician. Dr. Krumbeck has specialized training in treating chronic conditions in children using safe, gentle and effective natural remedies. She helps bridge the gap between conventional medicine and complementary/alternative medicine by using both new research and traditional naturopathic therapies to guide treatment.

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