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Teaching Your Way out of a Picky Eating Problem with Sensory Education

I swear, I didn’t go looking for another article about the French. Or about how superior they are at teaching their kids to eat right.

Honestly, I thought I was picking up an article about how a sensory education program in Finland worked to get picky kids to try unfamiliar foods.

On page 2, though, I got what can only be thought of as no-longer-surprising news: The French designed the program. Yes, the Finns were using a French sensory education program called, Classes du goût.

I’ve written about the French a lot lately, both on this blog—Read Ignorance is Bliss: Why the French Eat Better Than We Do. and Early Vegetable Variety: The French Advantage—and on my FB page.  I apologize, but c’est la vie.

Sensory Education can turn picky eaters around.

At the end of the Finnish study, kids who had been exposed to the education program:

  • Tasted a larger number of unfamiliar foods.
  • Were less fearful of new foods in general.

The younger you start educating your kids, the better the results will be.

In the Finnish study, the 2nd and 3rd graders benefited more from the program than the 5th and 6th graders.

This led the researchers to conclude: It's best to begin sensory education when taste preferences are being formed.

To me, that means it's best to start sensory education during the toddler years—especially if you have a sensory sensitive kid.

In my experience, you don't need to implement the entire curriculum to be successful. You can identify and teach the components your child needs to learn instead.

Got a kid who is sensitive to smell? Implement the aroma education. Texture a problem? Work on mouthfeel.

Here are the main elements of the curriculum:

1. Introduction to senses

  • Sight: Bananas at different ripening states.
  • Smell: Onion and garlic. What does their smell hint of about their other properties?
  • Hearing: Peeling potatoes, grating carrots, biting crispbread, and peeling a banana—blind-folded.
  • Taste: Dried fruits differing in flavor and color, choosing favorites and discussing whether the flavor was expected.
  • Touch: Mouthfeel of carrot and crispbread, comparison of how they feel in hands.

 2. Sense of taste

  • Learning basic tastes.
  • Adding sugar to sour juice: What happens?
  • Foods with different salt contents: Do you taste the difference?
  • Connecting food with taste.

3. Sense of Smell

  • Learning and describing the smell of different aromas (cardamom, carrot, vinegar, pineapple, lemon).
  • Demonstrating how aroma affects taste (sip of vanilla aroma solution nose pinched and unpinched).
  • Comparing smells of orange peels, orange juice, orange marmalade (intensity and pleasantness)
  • Exploring spices used at home and how they smell

4.  Interactions of Taste and Smell (flavor)

  • Discussing foods that go well together.
  • Balancing flavor: Tasting plain lemon and discussing the flavor. Adding sugar to the lemon and tasting again.
  • Off Flavors: Tasting fruit salad that has been contaminated with onion flavor.
  • Discussing different off-flavors and their reasons.

5. Sense of Sight

  • Pictures of foods with different colors, shapes, sizes.
  • Pictures of a gourmet dinner, fast food, everyday food: How do they differ?
  • Juices with inappropriate colors (for example red orange juice).  Discussing Coca Cola and Diet Pepsi: Similar appearance, different flavor.
  • Green and red salsa: Why do they look different?

6. Sense of Touch and Texture of Food

  • Fruits and vegetables (apple, pineapple, potato): Touching and describing the texture. Cutting them with knives and evaluating them.
  • Tempearture: Cold and hot water in a bottle.
  • Dairy products in transparent bottles, observing the movments.
  • Mouthfeel of fat: Tasting different table spreads.

Most parents with sensory sensitive kids are tempted to protect their children from offending foods.

This is the wrong approach because it only solidifies the problem. Sensory sensitive kids need structured exposure to problematic foods.  It's the only way they'll overcome whatever it is that ails them.

You can't feed your way out of a picky eating problem, but you can teach your way out of one.  That's good news.  

For more on this topic read:

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

Sources: Mustonen, S. and H. Tuorila. 2010. “Sensory Education Decreases Food Neophobia Score and Encourages Trying Unfamiliar Foods in 8-12 Year-Old Children.” Appetite 21: 353-60. Mustonen, S., R. Rantanen, and H. Tuorila. 2009. “Effect of Sensory Education on School Children's Food Perception: a 2-Year Follow-Up Study.” Appetite 20: 230-40.

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Reader Comments (6)

Wow! This is exciting news. Looking forward to incorporating this into playdates.

April 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLinn L

My younger brother took part in this or a very similar program in Sweden when he was around 10 (early 2000s). I thought it was an inspired program. Hard to say if it had any impact on him though - he always was and still is a in the grey zone between a picky eater and a person with refined taste. Also sample size of 1 is not very interesting.

April 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThy

Is there an online version of that article? I'd love to read more about the program.

April 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterConnie

Linn: Can't wait to hear how the playdates go!

Thy: Thanks for sharing your brother's story. I agree a sample size of 1 might not tell you much, but I disagree that it's not interesting!

Connie: I think you can get a copy of the article through Google Scholar. You can probably also buy access to it through Appetite unless you have free access through a university or library.


April 23, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

I am from Montréal, Quebec, Canada. I am a children’s writer. I have a series of unique picture books about curious siblings Tangerine and Kiwi who love to learn about food. Also since 2001, I give sensory education in schools and kindergartens to 3 up to 9 years old.

It is really as good as you say : )

April 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaila Heloua


Wow. I can't tell you how psyched I am to "meet" someone who uses this program. I can't wait to hear more. And would love to find out about your picture books.

Thanks for reaching out.


April 23, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

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