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Sensory Play for Picky Eating

You were probably told many times to not play with your food as a child, so you may find it very surprising that I am recommending food play to help with picky eating. Sensory play in particular can be incredibly helpful for picky eating. Many picky eaters are hypo-or hyper-sensitive to different sensory experiences, so exploring them during play can help get them more comfortable.

If you think your child has exceptional sensory processing differences, they would probably benefit from an occupational therapy evaluation. The occupational therapist can give specific exercises for your child’s sensory profile. The examples provided here are very general and should not be replacing medical advice.

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What is sensory play?

Put simply, sensory play is play that is focused on using your child’s senses (1). The most common senses we think of are sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. There is also proprioception (the awareness of our body in space) and interoception (the awareness of what is going on inside of our body).

The first thing people think of is usually a sensory bin. This is a bowl or bin with some kind of a material and toys that kids can play with. Often people use things like rice or beans as the base to the sensory bin. While these are great places to start, many picky eaters could benefit from exposure to different textures such as sticky or squishy items.

Sensory play doesn’t need to be a structured activity. It can be as simple as putting out different materials and letting your child explore. It can also be allowing your child to help out in the kitchen or work on art projects using their hands instead of paint brushes. Letting your child help out in the garden is another sensory experience.

Benefits of Sensory Play

  • helping with sensory integration
  • improving fine motor skills
  • encouraging creativity
  • using imagination
  • helping with language development
  • practicing problem-solving
  • reducing anxiety
  • aiding in self-regulation

Using Sensory Play for Picky Eating

To use sensory play specifically for picky eating, experiences should either have a food component to expose kids to the foods or have a texture or experience a child is working on getting used to. When coming up with ideas, it’s important to keep in mind where your child is at. If your child gets very anxious around slimy foods, a slimy bin may be too much. Incorporating some slime aspect that your child doesn’t have to directly touch may be more appropriate (this is where having a professional can be helpful).

Food Experiences

With these experiences, food is involved which counts as an exposure. Most of the time, you don’t want your kids to eat the food, so there’s no pressure whatsoever. Often these no pressure experiences result in kids being more comfortable around the food.

  • Gardening is a great experience that allows kids to see where their food comes from. It also allows them to play in the dirt and mud. It can be a complete sensory experience.
  • Involving kids in the kitchen is another great way to get kids involved who may be more hesitant. Most steps don’t require kids to actually touch the food (in many cases you don’t want kids to touch the foods). This means they can start to get more comfortable with the food without having to directly interact.
  • Arts and crafts can often be done with fruits and vegetables. Corn can be used as a paint roller. Leafy greens are good for crayon rubs. Apples make great stamps. I give many examples of these on my Fun with Food Friday features on instagram.
  • Setting up a smell test station can be a lot of fun. Many foods have very strong aromas. You can try and have kids guess which food is what based off of just the smell. You can do this with herbs and spices or just foods that you have around the house.

Texture Experiences

Many picky eaters are sensitive to different textures. Incorporating things that are sticky or squishy can help them get more comfortable with these textures. As they get more comfortable with their hands, they may be more willing to try them in their mouth.

  • Applesauce sensory bin. This is a combo with food and texture. Applesauce is a slimy texture which makes it great for sensory play. This is a great starting sensory bin for kids that may want to take a taste. Yogurt makes another great bin, but can be a bit more smelly which can be overwhelming for kids as that’s two senses they need to get used to.
  • Oobleck is a non-Newtonian fluid that is super easy to make (2). You just mix corn starch and water.
  • Play dough, slime, kinetic sand, and clay are other easy store bought options for different textures to try and incorporate into play

Take Home

It’s not only ok, but totally recommended for your kid to play with their food! Even if you wouldn’t describe your child as picky, these sensory play ideas can still be helpful. Sensory play has so many benefits. Try to make play fun and enjoyable and remember that your role in feeding is to put the food out and let your child decide what and how much they eat. Pressuring often backfires, so try and sit back and enjoy mealtime.

If you are ever concerned about your child, you can always reach out to your pediatrician or a pediatric dietitian for more support.

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