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Picky Eating 101: Sensory Food Play
When trying to help your child eat a greater amount or variety of food, it is easy to become focused purely on food consumption and exclude food experience. However, taking a step back from the eating focus and implementing food play could be beneficial for your child’s food relationship. Problem feeders, or those who eat less than twenty foods and avoid major food groups, may respond better to play focused food activities (5). Sensory food play can increase food novelty and therefore reduce food neophobia: the fear of new things, specifically foods. Visual experiences of food and learning to eat can play a large role in kids eating behaviors. Your picky eater may reject foods based on sight, before the taste is even a factor (4). Participating in food play activities can help ease picky eating habits by increasing food novelty.
Exposure and Pressure
When done correctly, food play allows for a unique way to expose picky eaters to new food items. The mere exposure phenomenon has shown how increased exposure influences food preferences and willingness to try new foods. It is estimated that a fruit or vegetable must be introduced at least 8 to 15 times to increase its acceptability (6). Although, some children may respond to fewer or more exposures. It is also important to remember that repeated food exposure can be translated between foods of the same group, but not outside of that food category (6). When choosing food items to introduce as food play, it is best to tailor your activities to include groups your picky eater avoids.
Remember to focus on the experience, not the result. Often times parents of picky eaters can fall into what is known as a worry cycle. If your picky eater often challenges mealtimes and eating, it can be easy to put more pressure and stress on their diet (5). While the concerns for your child are understandable, this can lead to a spiral of increased resistance. Relating to this cycle of worry is the pressure paradox. Mealtime pressure can teach kids to eat for the wrong reasons, decrease appetite due to anxiety, or even reduce overall liking of foods (5). Bribes such as rewarding for taking so many bites and distractions like electronics are all various types of pressures (5). Even sticker charts or cheering are considered pressures. While presented more positively than others, they can still create short term results and prevent long term eating behavior success (5).
Sensory Food Play
What is sensory food play? Sensory food play is an interactive food activity that encourages your child to engage, create art, or simply play with food items with no intentions or discussion of consumption (1). This is a healthy picky eating intervention that focuses on non-taste sensory experiences to increase food familiarity with low pressure. A study showed that children who joined in fruit and vegetable sensory play tried significantly more new produce items than those who did not (1). To set up a successful food play activity for your picky eater consider the following. First, choose a spot to set up a station for both you and your child where being messy is ok. Second, don’t focus on food consumption. For example, if your picky eater expresses concern over not wanting to eat the food in the activity let them know they do not have to eat anything. Third, stay open minded as your picky eater may even snack on the food items provided while they play. Lastly, include new or feared food items along with accepted ones in your food play.
Food Play Examples
There are many ways to create food play activities at home to help familiarize your picky eater to new foods and their sensory properties, these are just a few:
Non-taste Methods for Exposure
Food play can be incorporated in many forms and does not always have to be with edible food items (1). Picture books, for example, have shown to be effective food exposure methods in some studies. It was observed that when a child is presented with two new vegetables, they choose to taste the unfamiliar food seen in their picture books first over the one with no prior visual experience (3). The addition of food picture books are most effective when they allow your child to read about new and unknown food items. Most importantly, experience is still a key factor. Focus on creating an enjoyable reading experience by incorporating play by pretending to chop or eat the foods shown on the pages. An alternative way to incorporate food images would be to encourage your picky eater to be involved in the meal planning process. Allow them to research recipes with you, look at pictures of the ingredients, and view images of the final dish (5). To implement sensory food play into recipe planning, your picky eater could mix, wash, count, or shape food items while preparing the meal. Finally, another non-taste food experience includes playing with kitchen and food toy items. For instance, food toys can act as visual aids to teach new food names.
Food Play Review
Implementing fun food play activities can increase food novelty and help reduce picky eating behaviors sourced from food neophobia. To prevent worry and pressure tactics from taking over, it is helpful to remember that kids’ typical food intake can vary largely from day to day (5). No matter what food play activity you choose to create, make sure to focus on the overall experience and environment. Kids are actively learning from observations of parent moods, pressures, eating behaviors, and food preferences (4). Food play allows you to be creative and spend time interacting with your child: focus on positive discussion of food and food play, not consumption. With such a wide variety of options, you can determine which foods would be most beneficial to include and model ideal food behaviors through play.
Helping your child with selective eating and feeling confident in trying new foods can feel overwhelming, especially over the holiday season! In my book Blissful Meals Holiday Guide, you’ll find my proven framework used with hundreds of families for increasing the foods your kiddo tries and LOVES! If you’re looking to get more customized support with your child’s picky eating, schedule a complimentary strategy call here.
(1)Coulthard H, Sealy A. Play with your food! Sensory play is associated with tasting of fruits and vegetables in preschool children. Appetite. 2017;113:84-90.
(3)Heath P, Houston-price C, Kennedy OB. Let’s look at leeks! Picture books increase toddlers’ willingness to look at, taste and consume unfamiliar vegetables. Front Psychol. 2014;5:191.
(5)Rowell, K., McGlothlin, J., & Morris, S. E. (2015). Helping your child with extreme picky eating: A step-by-step guide for overcoming selective eating, food aversion, and feeding disorders. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
(6)Spill MK, Johns K, Callahan EH, et al. Repeated exposure to food and food acceptability in infants and toddlers: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr. 2019;109(Suppl_7):978S-989S.