Speech-language pathologists often recommend kids explore food by getting messy—sinking hands deep into yogurt, painting with pudding or squishing avocados to make “hand-made” guacamole. For kids hesitant to engage in messy play, however, or parents who can’t embrace it every day, try these three tips for encouraging kids to explore food. It’s often the first step to learning to eat new foods:
- Mosaic pepper pictures: Bell peppers are one food hesitant eaters might resist touching. Their tactile system might recoil at the slightly wet interior of the pepper. Cut peppers into strips and remove any excess seeds, then pat the interior dry with a paper towel. Then chop strips into pea-sized squares. Try a variety of colors: red, yellow, green, orange and even purple! Now, download a simple black and white SLP coloring sheet from Pinterest and show your kids how to fill in designs with pepper pieces, as if creating a mosaic. Need peppers to stay in place a bit better? Ask them to touch the pepper to a clean, damp sponge—or better yet—give each piece a lick. Interacting with a new food in a non-threatening way builds familiarity and trust. It’s essential to establishing a positive relationship with new foods, especially vegetables.
- String beads of food: Preschool-age children seem to adore threading dry pasta onto garlands, plus it’s easy for hesitant eaters, given the dry nature of the pasta beads. However, choosing a slightly moist food takes this activity to the next level and helps kids move beyond rigid patterns of only eating dry foods. Olives are an easy place to start. Buy inexpensive jars of any variety of whole olives. The bargain bin at the grocery store is usually full of them! Rinse and let them dry in a colander, then put one olive in each section of a small ice cube tray with the hole pointed upward. Now, give you child a blunt, plastic child-safe needle or a shoelace with plastic coating on the end. When your child holds the plastic needle or the end of the stiff thread, he can poke it directly through the hole of the olive, lifting it and threading. Many kids will often use their other fingers to steady the olive as they thread. Over time, they’ll begin to pick up the olives. Next step? Olives on the end of fingers tips!
Breaking down food play into the tiniest steps gives kids a sense of fun with new foods and builds confidence in their ability to explore foods with ease. Use these tips with clients hesitant to put new foods in their mouths. Once you sense they might put the olive might into their mouth, always consider the child’s oral motor skills in addition to age. Most kids over the age of four can manage soft, hollow olives in their mouths, but some may need round foods cut in half or even quarters before attempting to eat them. For more on kids and choking, please refer to this blog post: 5 Myths and Truths About Choking.
- Once kids will interact with damp foods like peppers and olives, try playing with foods offering even more sensory input. Edible molding doughs, for example, still aren’t as messy as playing in purees, but provide more opportunities for squishing. Edible molding dough is a cinch to make and keeps in the refrigerator for several days, depending on which ingredients you use. Always consider the possibility of food allergies and find recipes accordingly. Instead of rolling pins, try using fat carrots or a large zucchini to roll and flatten the dough. Using fun food cutters like FunBites also makes the experience interactive and keeps anxiety levels low.
Each child moves at his own pace in food exploration and repeated exposures activities like those above provide low-stress, high-success options for learning to play in food—without a mess. What ideas can you share for helping kids enjoy the sensory aspects of food via play? Please let us know in the comments below!