Helping Children With Texture Aversions to Food

Your toddler will only eat pureed food. Your son will only eat crunchy foods like hard pretzels, celery, and chips. Your daughter calls any food wetter than a cracker "slimy."

Your kids might just be picky eaters, but their food aversions could point to a hidden medical problem.

Determined girl refusing to eat.
Peter Dazeley / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

Yes, in some cases this may just be picky eating (lots of us have food preferences, and mixing them into a toddler-parent relationship is an easy recipe for power struggles).

However, if your child limits themself exclusively to certain textures of foods and refuses to eat others, it may be a sign of a sensory processing disorder (SPD).

Your pediatrician can help you determine whether a very picky eater should be evaluated for the condition.

SPD Basics

Sensory processing disorder is a condition that leads you to overreact to stimuli in your environment. The stimuli can involve any of your five senses, including taste, smell, touch, sight, and hearing.

When a child (or an adult) has SPD, they may seem to have out-sized reactions to what you'd consider "normal" inputs to your five senses.

For example, many people with sensory processing disorder cannot handle loud noises, like thunder or fireworks.

Researchers believe the problem in SPD involves differences in how the brain handles sensory inputs. These inputs, in some people, overload their brains and cause over-reactions to "normal" sights, tastes, smells, and sensations.

SPD and Food

Children with sensory processing disorder have a difficult time making sense of the sensory information that their body collects. This makes it difficult or impossible for the child to respond normally to external stimuli, such as food with a particular texture.

In practice, these children may gag if forced to eat food with the problematic texture, and they'll likely refuse it if they can. The texture that triggers this aversion could be crunchy, slimy, near-liquid, or something else.

SPD can cause a variety of other symptoms.

Some children may be over-responsive:

  • Averse to being touched
  • Tormented by tags in clothing
  • Unwilling to touch textures they find distasteful

Others may be under-responsive:

  • Oblivious to pain
  • Unaware of their proximity to others 
  • Constantly seeking out more sensory input
  • Prefer very hot, very cold food, very crunchy, or hard-to-chew food

Treatment of SPD involves physical and occupational therapy that eventually should help your child become accustomed to more textures and types of food.

A trained occupational therapist can evaluate your child’s sensory processing and determine if the food texture aversion is due to the condition.

Other Potential Texture Problems

Not every child who has an aversion to a particular food texture has sensory processing disorder.

For example, if your child will only eat soft food, it may be that they have difficulty chewing and swallowing other foods.

This can be due to dental problems such as untreated cavities, pain in the mouth or throat, lack of muscle control, or a physical difference in mouth structure that makes chewing and swallowing difficult.

A child who has always been in pain believes that pain is a normal state of being and probably won't describe feelings of pain when eating.

Children with autism often have rigid rituals around meals that can include refusing to eat certain textures, tastes or temperatures of food. They're also more likely to have a sensory processing disorder. The two conditions are separate but linked.

A Word From Verywell

If your child has been diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, work with their therapists to gradually expand their diet. If they only like one type of food—say, crunchy food—see if they'll accept different types of crunchy food.

If you make small changes continually, you may be able to broaden the universe of foods your child will eat. In some cases, however, you may need to consider a more intensive (sometimes hospital-based) feeding program.

Also, remember that picky eating can indicate a variety of medical problems beyond SPD. For example, some children gag on solid foods, while other children don't want to eat anything at all.

If you're not certain of your child's diagnosis or have questions about treatment, talk to your child's pediatrician.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Farrow CV, Coulthard H. Relationships between sensory sensitivity, anxiety and selective eating in childrenAppetite. 2012;58(3):842-846. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2012.01.017

  3. Patel MR, Piazza CC, Layer SA, Coleman R, Swartzwelder DM. A systematic evaluation of food textures to decrease packing and increase oral intake in children with pediatric feeding disorders [published correction appears in J Appl Behav Anal. 2006 Spring;39(1):122]. J Appl Behav Anal. 2005;38(1):89–100. doi:10.1901/jaba.2005.161-02

  4. Nadon G, Feldman DE, Dunn W, Gisel E. Association of sensory processing and eating problems in children with autism spectrum disordersAutism Research and Treatment. 2011;2011:1-8. doi:10.1155/2011/541926

Additional Reading
  • Ernsperger, Lori, Ph.D. and Tania Stegen-Hanson, OTR/L. Just Take a Bite: Easy, Effective Answers to Food Aversions and Eating Challenges. Future Horizons, Arlington, TX.

  • STAR Center Foundation. Understanding sensory processing disorder.