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Feeding tip for sensory or selective eaters: Where to place food so not to trigger immediate refusal

Posted by on Jan 15, 2013 in Blog Posts | 5 comments

When I went to the home of a nine-month old who was “refusing to drink,” I saw a lovely girl: smiling, bright, and interactive. While sitting in her high chair, the mom repeatedly tried to hand the girl the sippy-cup—putting it in front of her, trying to put it in her hand. The little girl batted it away, pushed, and cried, getting increasingly upset with every attempt. We sat back, and I suggested mom put the cup just within reach at the far side of the high chair tray and then chat or look away and perhaps sit back and take a sip of her own tea. Within a minute, the little girl reached out, grabbed the cup and began drinking.



Another home visit with a preschool girl provided a similar learning opportunity. The pre-plated foods were placed in front of the child. She was less adamant about refusal, but in a matter-of-fact way she pushed the plates and bowls away, or leaned over them to get at the crackers. When we changed tactics and placed the bowl of the new food within reach but not in front of the child and ignored the food, she became more curious. She watched raptly as the mom and I popped bites of blueberries into our mouths (step one in the process of learning to like new foods). When a piece was placed on the table within reach, she reached out, handled and inspected the food for a time, and put it in her mouth before spitting it out. (Remember, that’s a win, not proof she doesn’t like blueberries!)


feeding tip: avoid placing foods directly in front of your child, or repeatedly hold a loaded fork or piece of food at your child’s mouth


When you put a plate, or bowl, or pieces of food repeatedly right in front of the child, particularly one who has been pressured,  or is more sensitive to help from others, it can feel pushy to the child, and her immediate reflex is to physically push it away and to resist. She resents the physical  intrusion into her space. The conflict increases stress, which is known to decrease appetite and makes children more likely to rely on safe and familiar foods.

Try this instead. Get all the offering ready. Sit down with your child. Eat or drink with him if you can. Put the bowl, or food right on the table, within reach, but perhaps to the side, or let the older child help herself. Serve yourself. Then wait. Enjoy your food. And wait. Resist the urge to put it right in front of him, or to hold pieces up to his mouth in the hopes he will take it this time.

What happens? Have any of you experimented with this, or seen this phenomenon in action? If your child consistently refuses what you put in front of him, but happily eats the same food off your plate, could this dynamic be part of the issue?

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  1. Jenny Islander

    All three of my children, at some point during toddlerhood, made it quite clear that they did not like people leaning over them and expecting them to eat. They wanted their food put down at their place without comment and they did NOT like people looking at them while they ate–unless they decided to put on a show, of course.

    I can’t prove it, but I suspect that I avoided some food struggles by borrowing a tip from a Montessori catalog and seating each toddler at a little table my husband made from four prefab legs and a piece of oaktag. Their “chair” was, at various times, an actual tiny novelty chair, a sensory play cube (lumpy, but they didn’t seem to care), or a child-sized stool. The table was at one end of the main dinner table, replacing one of the chairs. They could sit down and get up when they wanted to, although I did expect each of them to tell me when they were actually done so I could clean up. I think this increased the sense of capability and decreased the amount of frustration.

  2. Emgee

    Just wondered if you have seen this article, which came out in our newspaper this week. Sounds like another doctor who doesn’t get it.

    • katja

      I did see it. It’s upsetting when someone is held up as an authority and isn’t really trained to be one. The Harvard name lends it a certain credibility. Sad. It’s a big reason why I wrote the book. As an MD, I think I can call out other professionals (I was one of them) who is giving out advice with no training on the issue. I describe the phenomenon on the book as the “don’t worry about anything” vs “worry about everything.” Seems like clients are either told by the MDs, “don’t worry, he’ll grow out of it,” or they are given a referral to feeding therapy for even the most basic developmental feeding challenges…

    • Camilla

      You know, that one just doesn’t sound so bad. It’s not strict division of responsibility, but he’s advising less worry and pressure, trying other foods the kid might like (that are still white) and setting an example of eating normally. It may not be enough for a really hard case, but it sounds like a decent mainstream first try.
      I don’t like “hidden vegetables” from the deception standpoint, but I do like turnips in my mashed potatoes (myself) and if the dislike is fairly superficial, I doubt anyone’s being harmed.

      Does the e-book have something scarier in it? I don’t care enough to buy it.

  3. Jess

    My son was an omnivorous chow hound from babyhood and I never had an issue with his eating. My 2 y.o. daughter is not terribly picky, but will sometimes refuse to eat. I try not make a big deal about it because I know she’ll eat better at the next snack or meal– she usually eats very well about a third to half of the time. She’s average height and weight for her age (dead on 50th percentile) so I know she must be getting enough nutrients. All that said, reading this post it suddenly clicked that she usually reacts more positively (a) when the whole family is eating together and (b) when she has two bowls she can pick and choose from (actually her favorite is to eat off of other people’s plates, which we don’t allow, but now I think it has something to do with it being a choice/control issue). I will definitely try to putting the bowl on the edge of her space and being even more non-chalant about it to see if it helps her eat more consistently…although, maybe she’s just more of a light eater than her bro. I will also encourage my husband not to pressure her…he reacts more negatively if she doesn’t eat which never results in her actually eating.


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