Eating is a very complex and sometimes challenging task for some of our friends with sensory processing challenges. The looks, smells, textures, and tastes of foods can sometimes be very overwhelming for these kiddos. When it comes to meal times which include foods not on their, sometimes minimal, list of preferred foods, these overwhelming feelings can result in big behaviors or even shutting down completely. Below are some simple strategies to encourage your child to explore new foods at mealtimes while taking the pressure and stress out of the situation.
Setting up the Environment
How and where the child is sitting during mealtimes can be the first consideration in allowing for the greatest success at mealtime. Giving children the appropriate postural support while sitting at the table allows them to focus more on the food presented and less on having to use their muscles to sit. It is ideal to position your child so that they are seated with their hips, knees, and ankles all bent at a 90-degree angle with their feet resting on something. If your child’s feet can not reach the ground while sitting in the chair, try putting a box or stool under their feet to give them something to rest their feet on. If the dining room chair is too deep for them to keep their hips and knees at 90-degrees, try putting a pillow behind their back to help them maintain that upright position. Another key aspect of setting up the optimal environment for mealtimes is to turn off screens. When screens are not present, this allows kids to engage with the foods with all of their senses, building new sensory pathways and flexibility in order to support engaging with more foods in the future.
Increasing Engagement with Foods
There are a few different ways to increase your child’s engagement with novel and different foods. If your child has a really limited diet and only eats a few foods, one way to modify their foods and increase engagement is to change the shape or color of their preferred foods. Get your kids involved in changing the color by allowing them to add a drop or two of food coloring or allow them to change the shape of their foods by using a cookie cutter. Another way to increase engagement around food is to talk about the food during mealtime. Talk about the shape of the foods, the color of the foods, the smell of the foods, how they feel about the foods, etc. Talking about the sensory aspects of the foods can support the foundational sensory pathways that support adding new foods to their diet. Serving foods family-style and allowing your child to scoop the amount of food they want on their plate is another way to increase engagement with foods during meal time.
Presentation of New Foods
When presenting new foods to your child, first take all pressure out of eating it. Provide choices to your child about how they want to interact with the new food. For example, “Do you want the food on your plate or on the napkin next to your plate?” Giving your child options in how they engage with the new foods allows them to feel a little more in control in a situation where their sensory systems often feel out of control. Also, when presenting new foods, encourage your child to play with them. Can your child drive the green bean like a car or make their cracker smash the pea? What about, sneeze the piece of chicken off their head or draw a mustache with the soup? Encouraging play with foods allows the child to experience these foods and exposes their sensory systems to the various sights, textures, and smells of these foods without the pressure of actually eating the novel or non-preferred food.
Feeding these kiddos with sensory processing challenges can definitely be tricky for all involved. By setting up the environment for success, making small changes to their preferred foods and getting them to engage with foods in novel ways you can support them in growing their food repertoire and hopefully make mealtimes less stressful for everyone.
By Erin Christensen, OTR/L