Think about a favorite food memory. Do you remember only the taste of the food or does the entire scene—the smell of the dishes served, the sounds of the bustling restaurant or conversation of the friends’ home, the sight of the table setting and plating of the food—spring to mind? Food can trigger memories and emotions in a way other experiences can’t.
How do these multi-faceted sensory memories created by good—or bad—food experiences affect our pediatric population when it comes to feeding? Using this question as my guide, I tried to find ways to create positive memories between food and sensory play for my young patients.
To deconstruct the intensity of these culinary sensory memories, we turn to Neurology 101 on how our brains create, retain, and retrieve memories. We store memories throughout the brain in groups of neurons that are primed to fire together in the same pattern that created the original experience. Each component of a memory gets stored in the brain area related to the sense that initiated it—sight, touch, taste.
Feeding is communication. When we help NICU caregivers interpret what their preemie is telling them during feeding, we support the parent-infant relationship.
Confusing? Let’s use a trip to Thailand as an example—specifically, a cooking class where my husband and I learned to make fried Thai rolls wrapped in basil leaves and dipped in a delicious concoction of vinegar, shallots, and sugar. Even now, years later while typing this, my mouth waters and I physically recall the sweltering heat of the tiny kitchen. All my senses spring into action and a good memory is retrieved by all the senses involved in creating the original memory. This was a great feeding experience.
Now let’s flip the coin. Some of my fondest memories growing up were the numerous weekend sleepovers at my cousin Mylene’s house. Every morning, we enjoyed sugary cereals for breakfast. It was there, however, where I also I tried Brussels sprouts. I was probably 6 years old, but I remember it like it happened yesterday. I gagged in reaction to the tasteless, soggy texture of the blanched Brussels sprouts. I learned to enjoy them decades later and even now can tolerate them only finely chopped raw in salads or roasted with bacon. This bad feeding experience altered one of my food choices for life.
Enough about my food-related memories. Let’s bring it back to why we’re here in the first place—creating positive sensory experiences and memories for a pediatric feeding group.
Kids tend to be one another’s best teachers, so I decided whatever approach I explored needed to work in a group setting. Here’s what I discovered—through much trial and error and parent comments—works best for my pediatric feeding groups:
- Design a setting and atmosphere to allow good memories to unfold, one your little feeders look forward to visiting.
- Set the stage with fun, non-food-specific introductory activities. I like to use books and most have nothing to do with food. This sets the focus of our group time not on food and eating, but on shared experiences and collaborations.
- Dive into sensory play with hands-on exploration. I spend this time on an edible arts and crafts activity. For example, kids draw with edible markers on lettuce “paper.” Or they use edible paint to decorate apples or bell peppers. Mix in some aromatic spices or edible glitter with homemade dough. Teach the little ones to enjoy the sights, smells, and feel of food rather than worrying about putting anything in their mouths.
- Bring it all together. We talk about how the food items felt and how we interacted with them—what was easy, surprising, or fun—as well as what we didn’t like. We encourage talk about how sensory experiences make us feel, but we don’t use negative labels. For example, a child can say, “It was mushy and I didn’t like it.” They can’t say, “It’s yucky.” What one might find yucky, another might find yummy and we talk about respecting one another’s tastes.
- Clean up. This give one more chance for everyone to touch all items one last time. It’s interesting how “clean up” will sway kids to quickly touch non-preferred items in the hopes of getting done with clean-up faster.
Remember, this approach to sensory feeding experiences involves leading kids through a journey of senses, and not rushing to the finish line of eating. Feeding is an adventure, even for those of us who are good eaters.
Through my groups, I try to create food-related opportunities to alter sensory experiences in a positive way. So, next time my patients encounter the same food items in the real world, or during individual feeding treatment, they retrieve only good sensory memories.
Cindy Herdé, MA, CCC-SLP, works as a pediatric feeding specialist at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital and founded Talk Eat Play, a pediatric consulting practice with a focus on parent education. She is also an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 13, Swallowing and Swallowing Disorders (Dysphagia). firstname.lastname@example.org