Food is a REAL fear for some children, just like being afraid of spiders or snakes. For some, the sensory properties of certain foods can feel just like nails on a chalkboard: tough to sit with and at times, shudderingly painful. Most picky eating boils down to the sensory properties of food. It might be the crunch it makes when you bite down, the way it feels in your hands, or the smell of it cooking. Your child may have a hypersensitivity to specific sensory properties of food, leading to refusal.
Most of the time, your child will have specific patterns. If you were to write a list of foods they would avoid and foods they enjoy, you’d notice that 90% of the time, the sensory properties of the foods they avoid and enjoy are very similar. But how do we improve this and expand the foods they not only tolerate, but actually like? Like all human’s, facing fears head on is the only way we can overcome them. The more we face it, the more normal it becomes until eventually, the fear is gone. When you altogether avoid your fears, you teach your amygdala (the fear centre in your brain) that you can’t handle them. Once you look at your child’s food refusal as fear, it suddenly makes sense; you wouldn’t one day go from being petrified of spiders to owning a pet tarantula! Your child won’t go from the beige diet to eating every color of the rainbow without some fear management.
Does this mean exposure at the dinner table isn’t enough? That’s right. We are told to expose, expose, expose our children to food varieties at the dinner table, and this will magically solve all our problems. This is not the case for most children, and when faced with their feared foods at the table, they are more likely to shut down with anxiety, eat their safe foods, rather than explore and try these feared foods. Let's go back to spiders and snakes. You've probably seen a spider many times. Has this removed the fear just because you've looked at it many times? No? The anxiety paralyzes any thoughts you are feeling, and all you can think about is getting out of the situation you are facing. Removing fears requires retraining your brain and that calls for more interaction. Exposure to a variety of foods at the table is essential however it is not the solution when it boils down to sensory aversions/food fear. This is why food play is INCREDIBLE! Play is a big part of a child's life and one of the simplest and easiest ways for them to learn. Play is inclusive to all children. Limited understanding, ASD, speech delay, medical conditions, meaning no matter who your picky eater is or how young, you can help them through food play. By taking food out of a mealtime setting and into a play setting, your child will instantly relax due to the zero pressures to eat the food. I often hear parents laugh about how their picky eater refuses all their meals but will eat random objects/old food on the floor they find. This makes complete sense because your child is not paralyzed by fear and anxiety; therefore, they are open to exploring the sensory properties of the food they have found. When your child is relaxed, they will be open to more.
Your child's brain is developing at a rapid speed. At birth, the average baby's brain is about a quarter the size of the average adult brain. Incredibly, it doubles in size in the first year. After that, it keeps growing to about 80% of adult size by age 3 and 90% – nearly fully grown – by age 5. Your child's brain consistently makes new positive and negative connections based on their day-to-day experiences, which will carry them through for the rest of their lives. These connections can impact many factors in childhood and adulthood, a healthy diet being just one of them. This is why we need to build on positive brain connections with foods rather than negative connections, along with avoiding stress at the dinner table. And the most effective and easiest way, in which we can do this is through play! I know, right! Let out that big sigh of relief. I'm going to provide you with techniques that provide nothing but fun.
Food play is a powerful technique for picky eaters and allows them to make many positive neural connections to the activity in front and the foods exposed. For example, if your child has lots of fun playing with broccoli, with time, their brain will have made many positive connections to this food, which will help remove sensory fears and translate to mealtimes when it comes to trying and eventually eating the food. When they see this broccoli on their plate, all those positive connections will come to mind, relieving anxiety while providing positive familiarity.
Playing with foods outside of the mealtime setting allows your child to relax due to zero pressure to put the foods into their mouth; this encourages them to explore, feel, smell, and sometimes even taste because it's fun. Your child is likelier to nibble food while playing than because it was served on their plate. I'm not saying to avoid exposure to foods at the dinner table. This is still important and helps prevent hypersensitivities building. For example, a picky eater who may be served the same foods every day for dinner will probably find the very different smells of a variety of foods on the plate super hard to deal with because they are so used to the scent of their safe food’s day after day. However, you will get results quicker and more positively through play, enabling you as a parent to help your picky eater with less stress and more success.
A child who suffers from picky eating should do up to 5 sensory activities a week. Now, this sounds time-consuming and messy, right? But it doesn't need to be! I have created the most simple setups based on what sensory properties your child struggles with, allowing you to apply this to your routines with ease. These activities occupy your child, giving you a break for a quick sit down and hot drink— win-win. I have created this section, so you can find your child's sensory fear, choose a play setup, have some fun, and then you're done. A simple, easy, and non-stressful way to help your picky eater every day in the most powerful way possible, (and you don't have to remember a billion pieces of information). Picky eating resources out there can be overwhelming, hard to understand, impossible to remember, and super hard to apply consistently. However, full of great advice and education, it hasn't been able to impact your life positively due to not being given clear instructions, something we parents with busy, hectic lifestyles need. This section will finally get you the results you need, and it's as simple as finding your child's sensory struggle and picking an activity. Do this five days a week, and you are making powerful steps to overcoming picky eating whilst also encouraging learning through exploration, curiosity, problem-solving, and creativity, at the same time as developing language and motor skills.