Eating is an essential adaptive skill that provides the body with vitamins and nutrients. Because eating should be enjoyable and non-stressful, the environment in which you eat should be free from excessive distractions. Too many distractions can be overstimulating, resulting in sensory overload. As a result, ‘sensory overload’ may affect what your child may eat or how much your child eats or, even, if your child will eat at all.
Creating a non-stressful and calm environment can affect your child’s success in eating. Does your child sit in front of the television, a window, a wall, or facing another room in the room?
Simply modifying the seating position of your child can lessen distractions. Lighting and sound reduction is another way to create an environment that’s less distractible. The goal is to create a more sensory friendly environment during mealtimes.
If your child has difficulty adapting to change, changes should be introduced slowly and in a nonthreatening manner. Too many changes at once can be overwhelming. Trying new foods can be traumatic for children with sensory challenges. Forcing a child to eat new foods can
result in a lack of trust.
If you make a list of your child’s most favorite foods, it can be helpful to introduce new foods, if the new food is of similar taste, texture, and/or color. For example, crackers and pretzels
both are crunchy and salty in taste. Making small changes is one of the most effective ways to introduce new foods.
Introducing new foods also can be successful through therapeutic play, because it can alleviate the stress associated with trying new foods during mealtimes. The main goal of
playing with food is exposure through all the senses: touch, taste, seeing, smell and hearing. From a child’s perspective, “If I can’t touch it, I won’t eat it!” For this reason, a sense of touch
during play is extremely important if you’re trying to expose new foods to your child.
Sensory based food play can also facilitate areas for growth and development for language, fine/gross motor skills, sensory regulation, and, even, attention span and social communication skills. Sensory-based food play can be very messy, but messy play opens up an opportunity for teachable moments. There’s a message in the mess!
At the least, messy play can enhance imaginative play and creativity. Learning through sense of touch is also a great way to increase sensory awareness. Asking questions about the
interactive play can enhance problem solving skills and build approaches to successful learning. It is important not to force children to play with textured materials. What are textured
Oftentimes, your focus is simply wanting your child to just eat something, but expansion of food choices takes time with picky eaters and children with sensory challenges. Children
with sensory processing disorder may experience visual/ perceptual challenges in which finding food items on their plate may be extremely difficult. For example, you might not think
that distinguishing the background from the foreground may be problematic, but green veggies on a green plate can be! Or mash potatoes on a white plate. Color contrast of food items on a plate can be helpful for a child in locating the food.
Another thought that works: offer smaller portions. If you’re introducing a new food, make it very small, like a child’s spoonful.
Some foods may look scary, overwhelming, and/or unappetizing (“yucky”). For example, an adult scoop of mashed potatoes may look almost impossible to eat, so it can be intimidating to a young child. A sudden change in mixing up vegetables may be confusing and unappetizing if there’s something in the mixture with which the child is not familiar.
Cutting up food into smaller portions is also a great way to reduce anxiety.
Sensory-based and food preparation can be fun, particularly if you can take the time to Involve children in the preparation of the meal, because that can reduce their anxiety associated with eating. For example, making pancakes with funny faces or building towers with fruits and veggies are some ways to enjoy preparation.
Paula Simpson, OTR/L, MHA www.bridgesofpossibilities.com
Paula is the founder of Bridges of Possibilities, a pediatric therapy clinic that specializes in occupational, physical and speech therapy services for children with special abilities. She is also the founder of the MY Kid Counts, INC . Paula, is the author of the book entitled, Sensory Integration, "Now that makes sense!"