A key foundation for working with and parenting picky eaters is understanding their WHY. A generic list of actions is not necessarily going to help if you don’t understand why your picky eater is behaving the way that they are, especially around their “tricky” foods. One key element that I often write about is sensory systems (here’s a link to my back catalogue of articles all about feeding and SENSORY). Sensory systems often need to be as engaged as possible prior to taking on a mealtime for kids to actively learn about a new food. Some kids have more difficulty regulating their sensory systems than others. In fact ALL people regulate their sensory systems differently and have different thresholds for handling sensory load. For picky eaters that are also sensory kids, the inputs around eating are more difficult. So ultimately they have to be ready for the task. This in it’s simplest form, means emptying out the stresses/inputs/busy-ness from the day. Remove the things that have bombarded your child. Then can we help them get ready for some new inputs. The food ones. Eating involves all of the senses. Eating is not easy.
Which senses are involved in eating?
All 8 sensory systems are used for eating. (Not even starting to mention organs, muscles, nerves, environment, ergonomics and so many more elements that need to coordinate & contribute to eating.) The 5 senses are important for eating and form a brilliant base for asking “real” questions to prompt learning about foods. The usual 5 senses we learn about are seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting. Additionally, the vestibular, proprioceptive and interoceptive sensory systems are also important for a child to eat well.
How to talk about senses and food with kids
Using sensory system prompts with kids, especially around food, is a fun way to learn tangible concepts and expand their vocabulary.
My top tip is to keep things simple and TRUE. Facts work!
When we say things like “Mummy likes the taste of this”, it is ambiguous for the child and it doesn’t really give them something to build off. This is the same as over emphasizing YUMMY or YUCKY. They are vague terms that may not translate to your child. “This is nice”, “This is a good food” or “Mummy wants you to eat this yummy food” also pile on a whole range of ambiguous terms, pressure, guilt and confusion. Use these prompts around different foods to increase engagement without pressure. You can even use these prompts to help reverse some negative language habits your kids may say like “I don’t want to eat it”, “No” or “It’s disgusting / yucky / ewwww”. Turn those interactions around with… “Let’s just have a learn about it anyway, we can learn with our eyes, ears, nose and fingers first.” If your child is nervous and uncertain about food, these additional phrases can help you segue into learning.
Visual Engagement Prompt Examples for Vegetables
- “What shape is this Brussels sprout?”
- “You can tell me what colour this cucumber is!”
- “Count how many peas you can see on my plate.”
Audio Engagement Prompt Examples for Vegetables
- “Is the potato mash a quiet food or a LOUD food?”
- “Does the raw carrot make lots of noise or only a little bit of noise?”
- “You can hold and break the capsicum stick near your ear. Does it make a big noise?”
Olfactory Engagement Prompt Examples for Vegetables
- If I hold the bean at arms distance and can still smell it, it would have a BIG smell. Is it a big smell?
- You can show me how far away you hold the onion before you can smell it.
- I am holding the celery very close to my nose and can’t really smell it. Is that a little smell food?
Touch Engagement Prompt Examples for Vegetables
- You can touch it to tell me if the avocado is cold from the fridge or warm from the oven.
- You touch it to see if this sweet potato chip is dry / smooth / bumpy / wet / slippery.
- You can roll the tomato from one hand to the other. Is that smooth?
Taste Engagement Strategies / Examples with Vegetables
Engaging with taste is in the upper reaches of difficulty for a child. Prompting here would be done carefully and mindfully of how they have gone with the previous steps. The best options here are to model and the language switches from you can to “i can” and proceed with:
- I will have a lick of this zucchini and if I am still not sure, I can have a sip of water until I work out the taste more.
- I can make teeth marks in the steamed asparagus stem and this helps me think about how many chews I may need to take when I eat it.
- I can tap this roasted chick pea on my teeth to help me work out if it’s going to be noisy in my mouth when I eat it.
Suggestions for how to get a sensory kid to continue learning and subsequently EAT more vegetables
Ok, before you click away because you may be thinking: “Most of these prompts mean that my child has to be around the vegetables for starters. Meaning I have to stop them running away screaming at the very mention of them. So, it’s not going to work”. However, remember we don’t have to start these chats at the mealtime. In fact, I often suggest we stage a range of learning opportunities and work on our own language swaps before we try too much at the table. I actually prefer to NOT talk about food at the table. For some picky eaters, books, activities and exposures away from meal tables will bring more learning because of the inherent lack of pressure to eat. Exposures at mealtimes are better via modelling and sharing foods in family style meals.
Disclosure: the following section of the post includes some affiliate links to resources that I recommend. An affiliate link means that I receive a small commission at no extra charge to you. Plus, I also find them helpful to show you the book covers without a copyright issue.
Books for Kids
To help 5-7 year olds learn about the 5 human senses, my kids liked this book that we borrowed from the local library last week, You Call That A Nose? Learning About Human Senses with The Garbage Gang. (Written by Thomas Kingsley Troupe and Illustrated by Derek Toye). It is a 10-15 minute read if you read it to them (depending on how many questions your child asks you along the way). If they are independently reading, the comic style of the cartoons may mean you need to assist them with the flow of the conversations. Yet, more importantly it is all about how we can tune into our senses to get us out of trouble (aka problem solve.) Effectively, this is a similar approach to how we may learn about a new food. We go sense by sense and get to understand it before we dive right in to eating. This is available on Booktopia. I like how it explains the importance of the messages that the senses need to tell our brain and that we need to listen to them to problem solve.
“What does my tummy say?” is the latest book by Maryann Jacobsen and it’s all about a little girl Emily. It is a children’s picture book based on understanding another sensory system, the interoceptive system. The sensations that your body tells you about how you are physically feeling – for kids feeling full / empty when eating and knowing when they are tired are the two most important parts of this sensory system. In this book Emily helps others understand the benefits of listening to their tummy, eating with mindfullness and not pressuring others about food. There is solid research around the concepts and although they are complicated the book really cuts to the heart of them. Full disclosure, I bought my own copy on Amazon and do recommend it. You can too here if the language swap from “Are you finished?” to “Is your tummy feeling full?” is difficult/needed in your family.
Of course, for younger readers, understanding the concepts of touch is so important. I love the “That’s not my … ” series of books. They are board books with a bumpy, silky, rough, smooth etc. surface embedded within the pages. Nice and sturdy for busy little hands. These are also available at booktopia.
Books for Parents
To help parents understand more about sensory system function, impact and regulation (and how disregulation happens), there are some brilliant books out there. I recommend:
This alone is a topic that needs much more attention than I will give here. However, I firmly believe in having a way to assist your child through a bombardment of sensory stimuli can help children focus on the tasks they are doing. This concept is sometimes known as a sensory diet. In my own case, visually scheduling (via prompt cards and a finishing box) has meant the mornings with my 3 year old have improved. Especially with her tantrums about going to school drop-off for her older sister, getting dressed, brushing hair and generally staying on track. This is one small element of what learning about sensory diets has helped our family with. (Sign up to the email to get some freebie cards to try at home.) You may also like Cindy at Your Kids OT has a more comprehensive post on Sensory Diets here.
More hot tips on getting assistance for sensory processing concerns
Read this post by my guest blogger Rachelle on 3 ways to get proprioceptive input prior to meals from sensory tools. Proprioceptive input prior to meals has been shown to help kids focus on a difficult sensory task afterwards.
Cindy from Your kids OT has this awesome post (with free printable) for calming down strategies based on a fun sea life theme. Perfect for imaginative children that are wanting to link their strategies to something fun and memorable.
In this article about scented play dough use before meals, I have embedded a video that explains sensory processing difficulties from the child’s perspective.
And don’t forget to…
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