Food Exploration for Children

Yummy sensory opportunities for children to explore the tastes and textures of food.

Exploring foods provides young children myriad opportunities to get messy and experience delicious and colorful sensory play! Paige, one of our deeply trained pediatric occupational therapists, shares some of her favorite summer food sensory activities for you to try at home with your kiddos.

Containers of food for “musical containers“.

To target the auditory, olfactory, visual, and tactile systems play a game called, musical containers.” Fill various size containers with various foods with unique sensory attributes. Cereal or pretzels will make lots of noise when the container is shaken.  Orange slices will tantalize the olfactory system. M&M’s or Skittles will literally be eye candy as a child’s visual system is delighted by all the bright colors.

sensory activities with foodAfter you have filled various containers, pass them around the table or back and forth, playing music your child enjoys. Stop the music, then open the containers to look, smell, and touch! The benefits of this activity include developing your child’s impulse control (waiting until the music stops to open the containers and to stop passing when the music is paused). Your child’s auditory system is challenged by having to focus on listening to know when the music has stopped.  They will learn to filter out distractions in his/her environment to focus on the activity. The different food items give your child a chance to explore his or her sensory systems, talk about those systems, and label how he feels about each of the sensory experiences. All processes which are crucial for development.


sensory activities with foodChanging the shape of food for fun messy play.

This next activity suggestion helps to develop your child’s motor skills and encourages messy tactile play. Gather various food in the house in which the form of the food can be changed. For example, you can chop up zucchini, you can slice apples, you can peel an orange, you can sift your hands through flour; you can place raspberries on each of your fingers. By facilitating your child’s exploration of food, he or she is gaining more comfort, which in turn helps children who are picky eaters due to sensory challenges and/or tactile sensitivity. By utilizing various tools/body parts to alter the form of the food (fingers, knife, fork, food hammer etc.), you are facilitating your child’s development of his/her fine motor skills, and hand dexterity – skills necessary to develop age appropriate self-care skills and be successful in the classroom setting as well!

Categorizing food for academic based learning

The following food activity is academic based and helps your child learn. It is recommended you choose a variety of food items that can then be categorized. Some categories you can choose include sorting by color, shape, size, attributes.

sensory activities with food

For example, peaches, apples, and bananas are all fruit. Tomatoes, apples, ketchup, and pasta sauce are all red. You can also facilitate your child’s vocabulary development by having him or her practice describing flavors during mealtimes/snack time. For example, this piece of broccoli is crunchy; this apple is sweet; this sweet potato is mushy and sweet.

summer sensory activities with foodTake a field trip and check out your local farmers market

When your child is involved in picking out the food he or she wants to try, he or she may be more excited about trying the food, especially if your child is a picky eater. Children will enjoy meeting the farmers and learning about where the food they eat comes from.


Resources for parents:

“The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear” – the playful account of two animal’s interactions surrounding their strong desire to eat delicious strawberries.

“It is Not About the Broccoli – Three habits to teach your kids for a lifetime of healthy eating.”


Helping the “picky eater” Handle Back-to-School

Eating is a full body sensory motor experience and feeding difficulties can be complex.

picky eating

by Melissa Idelson, Director, Child Success Center

When my now 8 year old child entered preschool for the first time at age 3, I remember being very worried if he would eat at school, how the separation would go and the beginning of toilet training. It was a time of building independence for him and for me.

At the time he had a limited repertoire of foods and became very irritable if he did not eat. Now after working with parents and children as a sensory integration occupational therapist for 25 years I have seen how common feeding challenges are. In fact research states that 20% of children from birth to 7-8 yrs of age will classify as having some type of feeding issue at some point in their lives. That is 1 in every 5.

As parents and educators, we are aware that there are times in development where children struggle more with the process of feeding. The research supports these times, 4-6 months, 12-14 months, 2-3 yrs, 5-7 yrs and 9-11 yrs. In fact 50% of 2 year olds are often picky eaters, as many of us have experienced, however only a little more than half will grow out of it.

So why is feeding so challenging? Eating is the hardest thing we do as human beings. Eating involves 7 different areas of human function and all need to work correctly and together to get the job done. Pretty tall order!

Eating in the first 4-6 weeks of life is an appetite instinct. At 4-6 months it is driven by primitive motor reflexes. But by 6 months and going forward, eating is learned behavior.

Below are the 7 areas that all need to be integrated for successful eating :

  • Internal organs – all are used
  • Muscular system
  • All senses- sight, smell, taste, touch/texture, hearing ( the noises you hear in your head as you crunch), balance, Proprioception ( jaw movement), Interception ( blood glucose levels, satiation, stretch receptors in the stomach)
  • Learning- history of learned behaviors related to feeding
  • Developmental stage and individual learning style
  • Nutritional status
  • Environment

Children with eating/feeding difficulties before the age of 3 should NOT be considered to have behavioral problems. These difficulties are due to skill deficits and or physical problems in one of the 7 major areas listed above.

After seeing how complicated eating really is and how many areas could be challenged in the process, it is clear to see why the research supports that in actually only 10% of the cases, parents are the problem behind children with feeding challenges.

So how do we help our children eat at school and get the nutrition they need to focus and learn.

For children 18 months to 10 years of age a normal metabolism requires food every 2.5 to 3 hours. In order to eat the amount of food a child needs during meals they need approximately 20 minutes to attend to a meal. If physical activity such as recess occurs prior to sitting down to eat, research shows that children will attend and eat better.

Here are some tips for parents and educators as your child heads back to school:

  1. Environment: Be aware of all the sensory experiences a child is exposed to when eating at home and school. If you can make modifications and adapt the setting that’s a great way to support eating. Occupational therapists can help identify inappropriate environment factors and create suggestions to the family on how to make corrections where it is feasibly possible to do so. When it isn’t, a child can be supported via a “Social Story”. With your child, write a Social Story that discusses where meals will be taken, what will be eaten, where the food might have come from, and what awesome changes happen in the body when you eat well. Collaborate with your child’s teacher before the school year begins by sending an email that includes the social stories you have created and the information you have gathered regarding how to increase successful eating for your child. Working as a team is key.
  1. Experiencing eating together: Studies show that when an adult sits down with the child and eats a new food with them, modeling the behavior, the outcome has greater chance of success. Websites such as ChooseMyPlate.org are great resources. During this time the children benefit from the adults talking about the sensory qualities of the foods and nutritional qualities. Removing all values judgment such as, “this is healthy and this is junk food”, is best.
  1. Look at Positioning — Does your child have good supported posture so that she can focus on eating instead of holding herself upright?  This is especially important for any child with developmental delays. Are her feet supported on the floor or on a bench so that her hips, knees and ankles are at a 90 degree angle?  Is the table at the right height so that her arms can rest comfortably without having to reach way up high?  Does she have adequate support at her trunk and back to keep her from feeling like she will fall out of the chair?
  1. Play With Your Food! Make an effort to play with food that your child may be resistant to.  Being able to touch an unfamiliar or undesirable food is a big step in the right direction when the ultimate goal is to get that food into a child’s mouth.
  1. Practice smelling foods: The sense of smell helps to create the flavors that we taste in food.  This is the reason that when we have a cold, nothing tastes quite right.  Keep in mind that when you heat foods, they smell stronger!  If your child is sensitive to smells, serve food at room temperature.
  1. Always promote movement before meals: Activating the muscles and joints supports sitting for the desired 20 minutes children need to eat a meal.

Does the child move while eating?

Know How the Body Works — Think about the body awareness, coordination, and motor planning it takes to get your hand to your mouth!  Kids have to be able to grade their movements, using appropriate force and timing to be able to feed themselves. You may take this for granted, but for little ones, it can be tricky!  Check out the cups and utensils your child uses.  How heavy or light are they, and how does this affect the way they eat? Sometimes preschoolers need a little cheerleading and hands on help to get the nutrition they need, to have a successful day at school.

Kids are smart!  Provide them with the tools they need to feel comfortable, in control and empowered and they may just surprise you!  Remember that eating is a full body sensory motor experience and that feeding difficulties can be complex.

Learn how Child Success Center  can help end the mealtime battle for you and your family.

SOS Approach to Feeding – Dr. Kay Toomey is a pediatric psychologist who has worked for over 20 years with children who don’t eat. She developed the highly effective, family-centered SOS Approach to Feeding to assess and successfully treat children with feeding problems, which is used by therapists worldwide.

Choosemyplate.org – Provides practical information to individuals, health professionals, nutrition educators, and the food industry to help consumers build healthier diets with resources and tools for dietary assessment, nutrition education, and other user-friendly nutrition information. Special activities, recipes and more to inspire kids to eat healthier and move more.

Child Success Center
2023 S. Westgate Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Call 310-899-9597 to access our “warm” line.
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