Just Take a Bite: Easy, Effective Answers to Food Aversions and Eating Challenges!

By Lori Ernsperger PhD and Tania Stegen-Hanson OTR/L
This book is a must-read for every parent who has a child with picky eating and/or eating challenges. Written from the experience of two practitioners with decades of experience between them of working with such children, the book serves as an extremely helpful reference for parents, therapists and even pediatricians. Eating challenges in children can be caused by so much more than just an obstinate child, and the book details how environmental issues, sensory issues and oral-motor issues may be contributing to the problem. There are many exercises, ideas and game plans in the book for helping a child to become a better eater. Rather than enabling a child's behavioral problems surrounding picky eating, this book empowers both parents and practitioners to work with a child and discover the real reasons behind eating challenges.

Common Contributing Factors

Many children these days, especially those with neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, developmental delays and learning disabilities, are picky eaters. Traditionally, these children are thought of as having behavioral problems, which may be true, but what’s not well known is that there may be physiological and cultural reasons contributing to their eating challenges.

Common physiological issues that may be causing or contributing to picky eating are:

In addition, common cultural roadbocks such as being told not to play with your food and to clean your plate may be making the problem worse. Parents of picky eaters are often told that children will not starve themselves, but in some cases this is not true because developmental delays and sensory dysfunction can often impede hunger signals.

A Holistic Approach to Food Challenges

Just Take a Bite sets forth a comprehensive plan for addressing food challenges. First of all, the book defines the criteria of a picky eater and then reviews the timeline of oral-motor development so that parents can know what can be expected of their child at a given age. Many times throughout the book, parents are reminded that the use of coercion often backfires and that it’s important to take a fun, slow, thoughtful approach to eating challenges.

Environmental Controls

The comprehensive treatment plan is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It first focuses on a child’s individual needs in environmental controls. This includes:

  • Setting consistent mealtimes
  • Selecing appropriate dining locations
  • Creating a supportive climate
  • Designing meals to include at least one favorite food
  • Setting age-appropriate portion sizes
  • Addressing food jags

Gastrointestinal and Physical Development

Gastrointestinal function, adequate postural control and oral-motor function are addressed in the second part of the plan. Many of these children have acid reflux, which may be causing them severe discomfort when eating. Instead of relying on acid-reducing medications, we advocate for implementing an elimination diet or a gut-healing diet to the heal the gastrointestinal tract. Often, removing a problematic food such as dairy or adding in probiotics can resolve this health issue.

An example of addressing physical development for a child with vestibular-processing issues is that he or she will typically benefit from being positioned in a stable, well-supported position so that the feet are touching the floor or a stable surface because the child’s body must first attend to vestibular input before attending to eating.

Children with dysfunction in proprioceptive processing (the sensory input received from muscle movement) will likely have better success with eating after doing a few gross-motor exercises such as wheelbarrows or donkey kicks beforehand. These exercises and other tips show how muscles and posture affect oral-motor skills and the ability to eat.

Stages of Sensory Development for Eating

This section of the book lays out a staged plan for eating in a playful and child-led manner. This plan includes activities and lessons that address a child’s potential sensory issues about food in the following order:

  • Acceptance of a new food without eating it
  • Touch
  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Eating new foods

Summary

The whole idea of the book is to create success in small steps in a fun, non-stressful way. The plan may take many months to complete, but start slowly and build on your child’s accomplishments. After reading this book and employing the tips and activities in the comprehensive plan, there’s an excellent chance that your child’s food challenges can be resolved, especially if your child is younger.

About Lori Ernsperger PhD BCBA-D

Lori Ernsperger is the Executive Director of Behavioral Training Resource Center, LLC.  She provides professional development to school personnel and behavior analysts.

She has more than 30 years of experience working in schools as a teacher, administrator, and behavior specialist.

Her current areas of expertise include teaching students with disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, and disability-based harassment.

Lori Ernsperger