Navigating Sensory Challenges for Peaceful Family Mealtimes
An ideal family mealtime would be a delightful experience of flavours, textures, scents, and joyful noises that fosters a sense of togetherness. However, for many families with children with sensory processing differences this seemingly ordinary routine can turn into a distressing and overwhelming experience.
In this article, we will explore the significant impact of sensory sensitivities upon the mealtime and share some strategies and experiences of families with children affected by these conditions. By understanding the challenges and sharing evidenced-based strategies, you will be able to foster a more inclusive and compassionate environment that nurtures every child's unique needs - especially around meal time.
Typical Fussy Eating and Sensory Exploration
Food neophobia in children refers to the fear or reluctance to try new or unfamiliar foods. It is a common behaviour observed in many children, particularly during early childhood, at approximately 2-6 years of age. This is a natural stage when they are exploring and developing their tastes and preferences and exerting their newfound independence to express their wants.
The evolutionary perspective suggests that food neophobia may have developed as a protective mechanism to prevent children from ingesting potentially harmful or poisonous foods. During early human history, avoiding unfamiliar and potentially dangerous foods would have increased the chances of survival. Children's taste buds and sensory systems might be more sensitive compared to adults, making them more sensitive to certain tastes, textures, and smells. Bitter and sour tastes, in particular, may be more intense for children, leading them to reject unfamiliar foods with such flavours. Unfortunately for parents that usually means vegetables!
This avoidance is a natural developmental stage, and most children will learn that these flavours are safe and possibly even enjoyable. It can typically take between 10- 20 exposures to learn about new foods and feel comfortable eating them. However, some children are known as 'supertasters'. This group of children are really sensitive to the tastes of food and may have particular difficulty transitioning to a varied diet and feeling comfortable around new foods.
The role of Sensory Processing in feeding
Sensory Processing refers to how the nervous system receives, interprets, and responds to sensory information from the environment. It includes various senses; touch, taste, smell, sight, sound, and movement. How children process sensory information can significantly impact a child's relationship with food, as it influences their ability to tolerate and respond to different food-related sensations.
For children with sensory processing difficulties, the mealtime can be an overwhelming experience as they are overloaded with sensory information that can feel uncomfortable and lead to protest behaviours to avoid the experience.
If a sensory sensitive child is overwhelmed by the sensory aspects of the environment, is then feeling pressured to try an unknown food, it can trigger a fight or flight response. This can further reduce their appetite and develop into negative thoughts, beliefs and predictions about the consequences of eating.
The importance of a calm environment
It is important for parents to provide a calm environment, being responsive to a child's unique sensory needs and hunger cues. This allows children to learn about their bodies' sensations, including cues for hunger and fullness and to curiously navigate new sensory experiences of food.
Creating a responsive meal time
A responsive mealtime environment is one that allows parents to decide what, when, and where their children eat whilst allowing the child to be responsible for how much and whether they eat. Parents can support children to navigate their sensory challenges by reducing stress and providing positive opportunities to learn about new foods. This can greatly improve a child's ability to participate in and enjoy mealtimes.
Tips to Managing Sensory Processing during the Mealtime
Here are some strategies to consider when planning out the mealtime environment for children with sensory challenges.
- Create a predictable mealtime routine
Establishing a consistent mealtime routine can help reduce anxiety and provide a predictable structure for the child. Consistency in timing, location, and sequence of activities can help them feel more secure and prepared for the sensory experiences associated with eating. Having the family involved in meal planning for the week can help reduce anxiety as they know what to expect and have the opportunity to have their preferences heard!
- Language is important
Let’s be kind to our food. It can be a habit to describe food as ‘yucky’ and ‘yummy’ when trying to coax little ones into trying new food. We must practice remaining neutral on foods, avoid subjective language and instead focus on describing what we see, feel, taste and hear! Additionally, describing the sensory properties can support a child to be able to predict the sensory experience reducing anxiety about what a food might taste like.
- Stop focusing on manners
Now is not the time to worry about politeness. Stop wiping them down or telling them to eat nicely. This is the time to learn new sensory experiences. Let them touch, play and explore their food, as this is part of learning and their journey to feeling more comfortable about new foods! Provide reassurance that if they put something in their mouth that they don't like, it's okay to spit it back out! This will help reduce worries about trying new food.|
- Prioritise autonomy
Reduce the pressure to try foods. Whilst using prompts and bribes might be tempting, children often perceive these as pressure. This can trigger feelings of overwhelm or failure, increasing anxiety and decreasing appetite! Instead of getting into a power struggle, provide opportunities to explore new food independently. Consider placing the food in the center of the table and having children serve themselves, this will allow them to choose what and how much food they put into their mouths—promoting a child's ability to tune into their bodies cues and build their confidence in managing new sensations and food.
- Offer food choices
Provide the child with some control and autonomy by offering them choices over the food they eat, within appropriate limits. For example, present two or three food options and let them select what they want to eat. Provide a combination of preferred and novel options in the center of the table that everyone can serve themself from. Try to reduce the focus on ‘parents' food vs the child's food’, the food is available for everyone to try, so have some of their nuggets and share the food. This can help decrease anxiety and increase their willingness to try new foods too!
- Gradual food exposure
Introduce new foods gradually and systematically. Start with small portions and offer children new foods alongside familiar dishes. This allows the child to learn about new textures, flavours, and smells in a less overwhelming setting.
Remember, with exposure to new foods, it does not mean putting the food into their mouth! Exposure can also include observing others eat the food or allowing it on the same plate. Think about alternative options to eating, such as being involved in cooking with new ingredients. Encourage a playful exploration of the food, let them use their hands and experiment with the feeling of their food. Try some sauce as lipstick to see how it smells and feels, or put carrot sticks in your mouth to pretend to be a walrus! Model playful experiences with food.
- Modify food textures
If a child has specific texture aversions, consider modifying the texture of certain foods to make them more tolerable. For example, you can puree or mash foods to create a smoother texture or offer crunchy foods as an alternative for those that feel uncomfortable with slimy textures. For example, fruits can be frozen or pureed, dipped in chocolate or made into chips. Think outside the fresh fruit category for new ways to present foods! Having your child help with cooking can teach them how to modify a dish to make it more appealing to them.
- Environmental modifications
Create a calm and supportive eating environment by minimising distractions and reducing sensory overload. Dimming lights, turning off distractions (I'm looking at you TV and Ipads), and providing a quiet space can help the child focus on eating and reduce sensory stress.
- Posture is importan
Some children might have difficulties with their vestibular and proprioception systems, it is important that they feel comfortable and secure during the mealtime, so consider their seating! Be sure to provide a supportive chair, cushions or supports can be added to the seating area to enhance stability. If their feet can't reach the ground, try using a footrest to maintain a stable base of support. The table height should be appropriate for the child's size, their elbows should be able to rest comfortably on the table surface while maintaining a 90-degree angle. A table that is too high or too low can increase instability.
- Offer sensory alternatives
If a child finds certain sensory experiences overwhelming or aversive, provide alternative sensory activities or tools that can help them self-regulate before the meal. Create a calm routine prior to the meal. This might include transitions to the mealtime E.g a hand washing ritual.
- Stay Regulated
Remember if you are stressed, so are your kids! If you want your children to enjoy food and feel safe at mealtimes, we have to foster that positive environment so that children associate mealtimes as a happy time of connecting with the family!
- Consult with a sensory professional
If sensory issues significantly impact the child's ability to eat or if they have complex sensory needs, it may be beneficial to seek guidance from an occupational therapist, sensory integration specialist and a psychologist at Quirky Kid. They can provide personalised strategies and therapy techniques to address the child's specific sensory challenges.
Each child's sensory needs are unique, so it's essential to observe and understand their specific sensitivities and preferences. By implementing these strategies and working closely with professionals, you can help create a more positive and comfortable mealtime experience for the child.
Need more help?
Embrace the journey of sensory exploration and growth with us. Book a session with Quirky Kid or if you are based overseas or at regional areas try our Online Children's Psychology Clinic, BriteChild today, and let's make mealtime the best time for your quirky kid!
View article references
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