In honor of occupational therapy month, Sierra Therapy Group is publishing a new blog series! Occupational therapists assist individuals in improving their fine motor, gross motor and sensory processing skills in order to reach their highest potential in activities of daily living, also known as occupations. This week, occupational therapist Amy Schelert, kicks off the series by sharing tips for helping children with the occupation of eating
Is your child a picky eater, especially regarding food textures? Do they show a strong preference for certain tastes? Here are some tips on how to expand your child’s diet:
- Involve them with Shopping and in the Kitchen
Spark your child’s interest in food and make them feel included by providing opportunities to help with grocery shopping and cooking. Children can assist by putting foots in the grocery cart, gathering ingredients in the kitchen, washing fruits and vegetables, measuring, mixing ingredients, kneading, rolling dough and tearing salad greens. Let them make simple choices such as choosing what kind of noodles to cook or which fruits to put in a salad. Helping prepare the food also gives them time to accept the idea of eating those foods and increases their exposure to new or non-preferred foods.
- Play with Food
Engage in food play with your child and see what happens. Will they kiss a pea? Squeeze it between their fingers until it pops? Rub it across their lips like they are applying lipstick? Playing with food facilitates interaction with food that is comfortable. They see food as “fun,” not scary and get to experience the different sensations of food while they play. Paint with broccoli, jelly, applesauce, mashed banana or yogurt. Write a word on a tray with pudding. At first, the expectation is not to be eating the non-preferred or unfamiliar food. Instead, the goal is to tolerate seeing the food on their plate, touching, smelling, kissing, licking, spitting the food out into a napkin, biting and lastly, swallowing the food. Baby steps!
- Provide at Least one Food they Enjoy
Start with the food they like and go from there. At each meal, always provide at least ONE choice they will eat or have eaten in the recent past.
- Touch and Feel
Tolerating touching a variety of different textures on a child’s skin is a foundation for tolerating a variety of different food textures in their mouth. Fill large bins with dry beans, rice and birdseed for sitting inside or just exploring with their hands. Make art with shaving cream during bath time or on a table outside. Interact with sand, putty, Play-Doh, paint (using a paint brush or even better, fingers), make messy crafts and participate in hands-on cooking or baking (i.e. forming cookie dough into balls). These activities will help children become more comfortable with slimy, soft, rough, bumpy and hard textures…all the textures of foods! Experiencing different colors, textures and smells is a gateway to expanding their diet.
- Change ONE Sensory Property at a Time
Sensory properties of foods include shape, color, taste and texture. First, start changing the food’s shape. This will be the easiest change for children to tolerate. Use cookie cutters to cut their favorite peanut butter and jelly sandwich into an airplane one day and elephant the next. Shop for different brands, shapes and sizes of familiar food such as different shapes of pasta and a new brand of yogurt. Once your child consistently accepts changing the shape of foods, begin using food coloring to change the color of custards, sauces and yogurts. For example, one day their applesauce is yellow and the next day it’s green. It looks different, but it tastes the same! After changing a food’s color is tolerated, progress to changing the taste just slightly by adding a small amount of spice, Jell-O powder, syrup, etc. For example, sprinkling cinnamon on applesauce. Last, change the texture. Changing texture is usually the most difficult step for children to tolerate, so be sure to save this step for last. Adding a thickening agent or an extra egg when cooking can create small changes the texture of familiar food. Experiment with adding extra sauces, custards, yogurts, creams or gravies to food. Help them use a potato masher or rolling pin to mash, roll or crush their food. Experiment with different temperatures- warm, room-temperature, cold or even frozen (i.e. frozen peas are less mushy). The difference should be slight. If the child as a meltdown or refuses to eat, the change was too large.
- Give Choices
All humans seek some level of control, especially children because they are learning to become independent. Children who have sensory challenges tend to seek even more control since so much of the sensory input from their environment is unexpected and out of their control (i.e. noises, what they feel on their skin, etc.). Choices offered can be as simple as, “do you want blueberries or strawberries,” what kind of dressing do you want on your salad,” which chair do you want to sit in” or “do you want a blue cup or a red cup?” Allowing them to make simple choices can help them feel like they have some control over what they eat.
- Eat Together and Model Eating
Mealtime is meant to be a social time where we share food and conversation. Watching what parents eat significantly impacts children. Making mealtime a family event is important for creating a positive experience and role modeling.
- Allow or Help Children to Serve Themselves
Sometimes a full plate of food is too daunting! Giving children some level of control over how much food is on their plate can appear less overwhelming. This can be done by putting all the food in the middle of the table and allowing everyone to serve themselves. If they are unable to serve themselves, try asking them how much they want scooped on their plate. Worried that they will not want any of a certain food or too much of another? Set rules for the minimum and maximum amount of food that must go on their plate. For example, they must put at least one tablespoon of peas but can decide if and how many more peas to have
- Present Food Fun Ways
Presenting food in exciting ways and offering new tools to eat the food can spark a child’s interest. Try serving small portions of food in different dishes such as an ice cube tray, muffin pan, Asian soup spoon, bowl made for dips that are divided into sections, test tube, jar and lunch box with compartments. Use a variety of utensils including knives, forks, spoons, chop sticks, tongs, toothpicks and fingers.
- Sitting Position
If you sit on a stool during dinner, you may find yourself squirming and wanting to get up. In the same way, children are likely to sit and eat longer when their feet touch the floor instead of dangling. Providing a foot rest or child-sized table and chair can help set-up children for success.
- The “Dip Dip” Technique
Mix textures the child does enjoy with some they are unsure of. For example, demonstrate dipping their favorite cracker in a slightly lumpy puree or dipping French toast sticks into a runny poached egg. As you model dipping, try saying, “dip dip!”
- Make Mealtimes a Positive Experience
Mealtime should be a fun and enjoyable experience for children. Have upbeat conversations at the table. Talk about the temperature, smell, appearance, taste (i.e. sweet, sour, etc.) and texture (i.e. mush, crunchy, etc.). Discuss what you like about the meal. Avoid getting into power struggles over eating. Praise and encourage them for any interaction with food, even if it doesn’t make it to their mouth.