Written by Brittaney – Occupational Therapist.
Sensory Food Play for Picky Eaters
It’s really common for children to display picky eating habits. Picky eaters may often avoid certain food textures such as soft, pureed or wet foods. Some picky eaters may avoid certain food colours, such as a child not wanting to eat green foods. A lot of the time, food pickiness can stem from sensory challenges that children may experience with the food itself and this may require intervention by an Occupational Therapist.
Eating is such a sensory-rich experience! As adults we don’t really think about this because eating becomes such a routine part of our day and our neurological systems have matured.
When you think about it, there is a lot of neurological sensory systems involved in the everyday skill of eating.
- Touch – We use our tactile (touch) sensory systems to touch and pick up foods with our hands, and to feel the texture and size of food in our mouth.
- Smell – We use the olfactory (smell) sensory system to smell the foods we are eating.
- Taste – We use the gustatory (taste) sensory system to taste our food.
- Body Awareness – We use the proprioceptive (body awareness) sensory system to grade the force of our bites and chewing.
- See – Finally, we use the visual sensory system to see the colour and texture of our foods.
So, when we look at eating in terms of the sensory components involved, we can better understand why some foods can be such a challenge for children.
As with everything, the best way to help our children eat a greater variety of foods, is to learn through play! Food play can be a great way for children to safely explore the sensory qualities of food and become more familiar and comfortable with foods that may have previously been difficult for them. Some food play ideas you could try at home include:
- Treasure hunts for items hidden in food. Using our hands to find things hidden in jelly, yogurt, or purées. This is good activity for children who show aversion to puréed or wet
- Feeding tricky foods to a favourite toy. This can help children become more comfortable with the idea of eating the challenging
- Using foods as paint, finger paints, or vegetable sticks as paintbrushes.
- Sensory tubs:dry foods are great for making sensory tubs; use dry rice, dry oats, or cereals.
- Making playdoh or slime from everyday food items. There are some great recipes for this online!
There are many ways to engage with food in play, and the above are just a few fun ideas.
Remember that the goal with food play is for children to explore the foods using their hands. This way they can become more comfortable with the sensory aspects of the foods… they are not necessarily eating the foods during food play; this is really important to remember!
Occupational therapists are able to examine whether a child has difficulty with their eating due to sensory challenges. If you’re concerned about your child’s picky behaviours with food, you may want to try some of the food play ideas above, or contact an occupational therapist for assessment.