Last week, I suggested that some picky eating habits stem from the pressure that parents put on children to “just eat” the food that’s put in front of them. Whether the child doesn’t like the food or the child is simply being defiant by avoiding the hated foods, the result is the same: a power struggle between a parent who wants the child to eat something and the child who is refusing to eat the food at all costs!
Instead of getting into that dreaded power struggle about which foods to eat, I’ve created some fun food exploration activities that will allow for the child to explore the food with no pressure whatsoever to eat the food.
In last week’s activity, the child is allowed to engage in some food-friendly art activities that introduce dreaded foods to be used as supplies in an art project. The goal—of course—is to create an environment that allows the child to “accidentally” try the dreaded food in a non-food format and to learn that it isn’t really as bad as the child thinks.
This week’s activity is ideal for kids who show a sensory aversion to food. This activity allows the child to explore various sensory experiences in food—crunchy, soft, squishy, gooey, sticky, etc.—again with no pressure on the child to have to eat foods from the sensory category that he hates.
Sensory Food Experience
Sometimes, the aversion that a child feels toward a certain food is related to a sensory experience. The thought of putting something slimy, gooey, wet or tacky in their mouth becomes too overwhelming. So, when they are faced with eating this kind of food, their initial response is to push it away for fear of having to put that type of texture into their mouth. The fear of the texture prevents the child from experiencing the texture, and without exposure to the feared texture, the fear of the texture increases. This becomes an increasing problem the longer the child fights actual exposure or experience with the texture.
Does this sound like a child you know? Check out this post about Sensory Processing Disorder to find out if this is something that the child could be suffering from and then set up an appointment with a children’s counselor to get help for that child now.
Sensory food experiences, just like food art projects, allow the child to face the food that the child wants to avoid, without any pressure for the child to actually eat the food. The food that the child wishes to avoid is used in a sensory-based activity in which the child is able to experience the food with the hands, but is discouraged from actually eating it.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- Liquid and dry measuring cups
- Measuring spoons
- Cookie cutters
- Garlic press
- Flour sifter (an old one that you don’t mind getting ruined)
- Wooden spoons
- A dreaded food that can be poured, scooped or squished, like:
- Mashed potatoes
- Canned fruit
- Canned vegetables
- Peanut butter (only for children who are old enough to safely eat peanut butter)
- Cottage cheese
For this experience, you can include other foods that your child likes and doesn’t like, but it is essential that at least one of the foods be of a consistency that can be poured or squished.
Here’s what to do:
If needed, prepare the food to the consistency that the child dislikes. Foods like mashed potatoes and rice must be prepared as they would for a meal and then cooled. Add food coloring to any food that would take the coloring. This creates something that is less threatening, because the food doesn’t actually look like it does when it is presented on the plate.
Fill a small, shallow tub (like a shallow Rubber Maid tub like this) with the dreaded food. Make enough to create a full layer in the tub, much like you would if you were making this into a water sensory table.
Set the other supplies either inside the tub, or nearby, depending on your space. It would be best to have all of the tools set out in an organized manner near the tub, so that the child can choose which ones to add and which ones to leave out. But, if you have limited space, you can pick a few of the tools and place them directly in the tub with the food.
Allow the child to play in the tub, using the tools as the child feels fit. Again, makes sure to say something like, “You probably shouldn’t eat the stuff in our sensory tub, but if you accidentally get some in your mouth, you’ll be ok since its all food.”
The goal of this activity is to expose the child to the dreaded texture in a way other than forcing the child to put the food into his mouth. Since kids usually put things into their mouths as they play, it’s likely that some of this food will end up in his mouth at some point. This is the time that the child will be able to experience that texture in his mouth, without the pressure that he is supposed to do it. Simply allowing for these exposure times will likely decrease the fear of that texture in the future.
This doesn’t exactly solve the problem—because once a child decides that he doesn’t like mashed potatoes, he knows that he doesn’t like mashed potatoes no matter what you tell him—but it opens the door for introducing dreaded textures as foods at meal times. If you see that your child will eat the mashed potatoes during the sensory experience, but avoids them during meal time, you now have the knowledge that he likes the food and can handle his picky eating at meal times differently.