Entries in Sensory Sensitivity (9)


Picky Eating and Anxiety

If you parent a picky eater it’s tempting to think you have to fix the food.  You don’t. You have to fix your kid.

Fix is probably too strong a word, but you get my point.  Instead of focusing on how to find the perfect food, the one your picky eater will tolerate, figure out how to help your picky eater tolerate more foods.

That was the gist of my last post Teaching Your Way Out of  Picky Eating Problem with Sensory Education.  Children with sensory issues need to learn how to cope with food stimuli that trigger them.

A lot of picky eaters are picky because they are highly sensitive to variations in taste and texture.  (This makes them particularly vulnerable to problems with fruits and vegetables, which change as they become ripe and then start to rot.)

But sensory sensitivity isn’t the only characteristic trait that makes kids prone to becoming picky eaters.  Some kids are shy.  Others are emotional. 

Many kids are anxious.

One way to understand your picky eater is this: Kids who are anxious become picky eaters, in part, as a way to manage their anxiety.

And, the more anxiety a child experiences, the more committed she’ll be to her anxiety-management system.  This is especially true if eating (or the thought of eating) produces nausea, gagging, and/or vomiting. 

Framed in this way, it’s clear that the way out of a picky eating problem is to give your picky eater an alternative way, a better way, to manage anxiety around food and eating.

Relaxation techniques can help reduce your child's anxiety.

Here’s an example of a program you can use to reduce your child's anxiety around eating.  It was originally targeted to children 7-16, but I don’t see any reason why the ideas can’t be adapted and applied to younger children as well.

Step 1: Record thoughts and feelings.

  • Help your child keep a detailed record of what he eats every day for a week.
  • Talk about worrying feelings or thoughts that arise during mealtimes.  (For younger children consider facilitating this conversation with drawings or playtime with dolls.)
  • Ask your child to choose a time when he might feel comfortable trying a new food.

Step 2: Systematically desensitize your child to the experience of trying new foods.

  • Have your child choose a new food to try.  This can be a variation on a familiar food or something totally new.
  • Make sure your child knows that the goal is to try the new food, not necessarily to like the new food.
  • Give your child no more than ½ a teaspoon of the new food to taste.
  • Reinforce every attempt to try a new food with a token chart. Remember, every try is a success.

One way to use rewards is to make a picture built from the tokens.  For instance, you could make a food flower: Have your child attach sticky paper leaves—one for each tried food—around a paper circle center.

For more on introducing new foods read: Nix the Negativity and Why Some Kids Should Spit.

Step 3: Teach your child to relax at mealtimes using guided imagery.

  • Talk to your child about how he can use what goes on inside his head to make trying new foods easier.  Explain this as a form of “magical thinking” where people use their minds to help them control worries, or other symptoms such as gagging.
  • Help your child construct a story with images to help reduce or control symptoms.  For instance:

"Tracy made a story using her favorite animal, a horse. In the story she went on a fabulous journey and galloped across fields before finding a stream. In the story she sat by the stream and drank magic water, which would prevent her retching when she tried new food even if she didn’t like it much."

  • Prompt your child to use "magical thinking" before each meal.

You may think your child is too young to do these exercises. And that talking to your child would be a waste of time.

But the secret is to engage your child in the process— at whatever age, and at whatever stage.  It's the only way to teach your child the skills he'll need for a lifetime of healthy eating.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

Sources: Farrow, C. V. and H. Coulthard. 2012. “Relationships Between Sensory Sensitivity, Anxiety and Selective Eating in Children.” Appetite 58: 842-46; Nicholls, D., D. Christie, L. Randall, and B. Lask. 2001. “Selective Eating: Symptom, Disorder Or Normal Variant?” Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry 6: 257-70.


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.


Why Some Kids Should Play with their Food

Next time you hear yourself saying, "Peter, don't play with your food," perhaps you should reconsider.

For some kids, food games are a good thing.  This is particularly true for tots who are resistant to new foods.

But let me be clear: I'm not talking about encouraging your kids to throw food at each other, or to smear stuff on the walls, in their ears, or up their noses.

I'm talking about something a little more structured.

I’ve written a lot about new food acceptance over the past few years, but I’ve mostly focused on:

But some kids need a slower approach. They need to get acquainted with a new food.  They need to have some fun!

Here are 5 games you can play with your children that will build new food acceptance.

These games are particularly good for children with food sensitivies.

Game 1: Hot Potato 

  1. Select 3 new foods and 3 familiar foods.
  2. Place one item in a small bowl.  
  3. Turn the music on and pass the bowl around.
  4. The person holding the bowl when the music stops makes a visual statement about the item: The carrot is orange.  (You can play a round using smell statements too).
  5. The person who has the bowl now chooses another item to go into the bowl.
  6. Start the game again.

Game 2: Guess What's in the Box

  1.  Gather 7-10 new food items and a box with a small hole (shoe box will do).
  2. Place one food in the Mystery Box.
  3. Have the child place her hand through the hole, touch the item and guess what it is. (You can also ask your child to guess what's in the box by smelling the food inside.)
  4. Give the child a turn to select and place the food in the box. Now the adult has to guess what it is.
  5. Repeat.

Game 3: Paint with Food

  1. Select 2-3 sauces as your paint.  Consider ketchup, mustard, ranch dressing, yogurt, and applesauce.
  2. Select several foods as your paint brushes.  Consider carrot sticks, celery, chicken drumsticks, pretzel sticks, broccoli spears.
  3. Provide construction paper and let your child have fun!

Game 4:  Food Bingo

  1. Decide how many squares your Bingo cards will have. Then make Bingo cards by drawing squares onto a piece of construction paper and glueing on pictures of food.
  2. Write the name of each food on a 3x5 card.
  3. Give each member a bingo card and markers.
  4. Turn over the 3x5 cards and select the first card.
  5. Have each child identify if they have the food item on their Bingo card and place a marker on the card.
  6. Each time the child has a chosen food item, he or she has to hold the actual food item and describe it's touch, smell, look, etc.

Game 5: The Matching Game

  1. Select 3-5 food items, including some preferred foods.
  2. Write a description for each food item on a separate 3x5 card such as: sweet, sour, bitter, strong, refreshing, spicy, minty.
  3. Have each member of the group smell the food item and identify which description best describes it.
  4. Encourage your children to write new and creative descriptions for each item.

I wish I could accept credit for inventing these games, but I can't.  

You might say I stole them, but I like to think I borrowed them, from a brilliant book Just Take A Bite: Easy, Effective Answers to Food Aversions and Eating Challenges.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~