Feeding My Highly Sensitive Preschooler

I was blessed with a highly sensitive child. He is amazing.

When I say he’s highly sensitive, that’s not just some pseudo, mom psychology. It’s a real thing.

If you’re not familiar with Highly Sensitive People (HSP), the personality trait was identified by psychologist Elaine Aron in the 1990s. Highly sensitive people perceive sensory stimuli at a more intense rate than others, are incredibly observant or attuned to subtle changes in the environment, and process events with incredible depth.

While some in our society would believe that being highly sensitive would make someone weak, in reality, they are the canary in our coal mine. Once they see and process an injustice, they cannot let it go.

But there are drawbacks to being highly sensitive. Highly sensitive people deal with overwhelm, exhaustion, and burnout from absorbing what everyone else around them is putting out. Loud, crowded, and busy places can be extra overwhelming, too. They often need a safe space to decompress regularly.

One might mistake a HSP with an introvert, but a Highly Sensitive Person can be either an introvert or an extrovert. Of course, Highly Sensitive tendencies show up a little bit differently in everyone.

In my son, it shows as cautious, observant, and shy. New experiences un-nerve him and he always needs time to warm up to new people or situations. While these traits may feel arduous in a busy world, being highly sensitive has a strong upside.

He is unabashedly brave and will do what he feels right even when it’s hard.

So I’m going to say this with as much conviction as you could imagine:

The world needs to embrace highly sensitive people. Especially highly sensitive men.

I can’t remember when it dawned on me that my son is an HSP, but that understanding was a gift. This knowledge opened a line of communication between us and acceptance from me.

To be brutally honest, this has been a difficult personality trait for me to parent. I’ve tried to force him into situations that I just thought all kids should be able to handle. Gymnastics, swim lessons, and the nursery at church, to name a few. I would huff at him for clinging to me and wonder what I was doing wrong. Or more horribly, what was wrong with him?

For starters, NOTHING was wrong with him. But everything about the way I approached situations was wrong for a highly sensitive child.

You see, the world from my highly sensitive four-year-old’s perspective is overwhelming. Loud. Scary. He will just never be the one to run into an unknown situation.

And that’s ok.

His caution is a gift and someday will serve him incredibly well… if the world (including me) doesn’t beat it out of him.

Feeding the Cautious

Preschool Boy Eating Apples

When it comes to feeding, his HSP character trait is a big factor in our success. To an average observer, he would probably appear picky. But he’s not. He loves lamb Epic bars and eats peppers like candy.

He loves a wide variety of textures and flavors but has a very low tolerance for new foods.

The difference between picky and sensitive is nuanced, but matters when developing a strategy for successful feedings.

What does a successful feeding look like?

In our house, a successful feeding is providing nourishing foods in a calm and positive environment.

One of our primary roles as a parent is to give our kids every possible opportunity to eat good, nutritious food. BUT the other side of that coin is to be sure we are equipping children with discernment, judgment, and the freedom to make good choices for themselves.

I cannot give my child complete freedom to eat but only providing Doritos and ice cream.

I cannot provide only healthy food while forcing him to eat things he legitimately hates.

Both of these strategies undermine half of my goal.

Three strategies I use to feed my highly sensitive child

When my son stopped eating all of the Insta worthy foods I fed him for the first 2 and a half years of his life, I was devastated. And felt like a complete failure. For a minute, I thought we were going to have to throw in the towel and eat pizza for every meal.

But as with most things when it comes to parenting, it was temporary. What needed to change was not his palate, but my approach. I developed a few strategies that keep him well fed, myself sane, and mealtimes pleasant.

(Even if you don’t have a Highly Sensitive Child, I would also argue that most kids are sensitive to some degree. You might find these strategies useful for all of your kids!)

  1. Adopt and embrace the Division of Responsibilities.

    Have you ever heard of Ellyn Satter? Her book, Child of Mine, has become my go-to for feeding strategies. She lays out the Division of Responsibilities (DOR) and it has completely changed our entire approach to feeding. The theory of DOR is twofold:

    1. The responsibility of a parent is the what, when, and where of feeding. This means parents provide healthy and tasty food in a low-stress environment. For example: “I’m serving burgers, roasted potatoes, salad, and strawberries at 5:30 at the kitchen table.”
    2. The responsibility of a child to decide the how much and whether of eating. For example “I’ll eat four burger buns, one bite of the actual burger, strawberries, and a few of the cucumbers from the salad.”

    We parents are SO well-meaning. I KNOW my son would like that roasted potato if he would just try it. I KNOW my son will sleep better with some protein in his belly. I understand the value of a balanced plate and cringe when I see him load his plate with only carbs.

    But if I force him to eat he only learns that he cannot listen to his hunger cues. And if I’m offering a smattering of nutrient-dense foods, his needs will be met.

    The end game of the Division of Responsibilities is not control. It’s that kids: 1.) Learn to listen to their own hunger cues and make choices for what works for them and 2.) Gives kids the freedom to try new foods just by taking away the pressure.

    Ellyn Satter writes “While I could choose nutritious food, cook well, and make our mealtimes pleasant, there was no way I could get my children to eat food they didn’t want to.”

    When I try to force my son to try foods, it’s a disaster. It ruins mealtime. He’s far more suspicious and stressed the next time we sit down to dinner. And probably the most harmful outcome is that it teaches him to ignore his own body.

    When we committed to DOR, we said good-bye to “three more bites!”, “No Thank You” bites and using eating as a barrier to other activities (playing, dessert, etc). TO BE TOTALLY TRANSPARENT- I still revert back to this when I’m tired and frustrated. It’s how both my husband and I learned to eat because this is the well-meaning advice that has been taught to parents forever.

    Breaking a cycle is HARD!

    One last tip before I move on: Serve everything family style and let your child select what he wants on his plate. If you put things on his plate that he doesn’t eat, your frustration level will skyrocket. Also, get some chickens. Wasted food turns into delicious eggs!

  2. When overwhelm is high, stick to the hits.

    When it comes to highly sensitive kiddos, they are especially susceptible to overwhelm. Strong sensory input can cause burnout quicker than it would in a less sensitive person. Things like an afternoon swimming with his cousins or spending the day with a babysitter causes my son to become extremely overwhelmed. When he comes to the table and I’ve made a brand new recipe I found on Pinterest, he doesn’t have the neural capacity to process the deviation from the norm. Add to the situation that he’s usually hungry because he has been playing at more intense levels and holding it together more than normal. It’s the perfect storm of overwhelm and dysregulation.This usually means a meltdown. Sometimes he merely refuses to try anything new, which means he gets more and more hungry and then ends up melting down anyway.

    When I’m planning our menu for the week, I stick to favorites on days I work. Tacos, spaghetti, and hot dogs usually top the list. This also works to my advantage because his favorites are usually really simple and I don’t have as much time on these days.

    I can easily make these options healthy by providing a vegetable he likes or making a sauce with bone broth. Even if he doesn’t want the sauce or vegetable, I’m working towards our goal – making mealtimes pleasant and teaching him to let his body guide the way.

  3. Scaffold Meals and Go Slow

    Scaffolding is a teaching technique that I’ve found incredibly helpful. It takes what the child already knows and builds from there. It sounds fancy but is the natural way humans learn. For example, that pincher grip that everyone talks about for babies is the start of so many important skills. A good pincher grip turns into a good scissor grip. A good scissor grip turns into a strong hand for writing. The skill of writing is literally scaffolded from infancy. I regularly use this technique for introducing new foods to my highly sensitive preschooler. I take what he already knows and use it to build in unfamiliar foods.For example, I know he loves spaghetti. I typically make a meat sauce with ground beef or ground pork but I wanted him to get more comfortable eating bigger hunks of meat. Rather than going all-in and making huge meatballs, I started small.

    I started by not grounding the beef so much.  There were naturally bigger hunks of meat in the sauce. Then I made meatballs, but not as large as I normally would make. I was eventually able to feed him meatballs alongside some marinara sauce and noodles. I used the scaffolding technique to build upon what he already knew to introduce new foods.

    I also go slowly with this technique. Change is highly stimulating to my sensitive preschooler. His nervous system exhaustively processes every small change. One wrong move and he disengages from the entire meal.

    To the rest of us, it looks like he’s overreacting. It’s hard enough to deal with one on one, but when I’m around people the social programming to conform kicks in.

    Parenting is HARD.

    I constantly have to remind myself that this is how he’s wired. This is a hard trait for me to parent, but it is his gift. Because of it, he will naturally be more creative, empathetic, and a good leader. But ONLY if I don’t stamp it out of him first.

Conventional feeding approaches just won’t work for Highly Sensitive Children

Mom kissing son on the cheek in kitchen

Every kid is different and yours may be the type that sits at the table and eats everything put in front of him. That’s amazing and I’m really glad for you! (No seriously, that’s not a passive-aggressive comment.)

But given that 15-20% of the population is believed to be Highly Sensitive, chances are decent that you have a kiddo for whom conventional wisdom does work.

Kelsey Signature

Kelsey Albers, NTP

Tell me, how have you adjusted your feeding strategy to support your Highly Sensitive Preschooler? Share in the comments or hop on over to my private Facebook group and join the conversation!


Feeding My Highly Sensitive Preschooler  Feeding My Highly Sensitive Preschooler

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