Use the five senses and help children develop a better relationship with food, says Lucy Cooke

Childhood eating and feeding difficulties are common, particularly in neuro-divergent children and in those with developmental delay. Children with autism, ADD, dyspraxia or sensory modulation difficulties may experience the taste, smell, sight and feel of food differently than neurotypical children because of altered sensory thresholds in one or more senses. Low sensory thresholds lead to heightened sensitivity, and high thresholds to under-sensitivity. For example, a child with an over-sensitivity to taste will dislike strong flavours, reject unfamiliar foods and will immediately detect even a minor change in the taste of a familiar food leading to a refusal to eat that food.

Likewise, a child with a heightened tactile sensitivity may avoid touching foods or certain textures of food. In contrast, a child who is under-sensitive to taste will seek out strong flavours and want more seasoning or sauces, and those with reduced tactile sensitivity may play with and touch food inappropriately. Children with ASD are most often over-sensitive in the areas of taste, smell, and vision, whereas children with an intellectual disability such as Down Syndrome may present with under-sensitivity. 

If it’s not white, it’s not going on the plate. Such sensitivities can negatively impact the nutritional quality of affected children, who may accept only a limited number of foods—sometimes as few as two or three. ‘A beige diet’ is common, featuring bland carbohydrates such as pasta, bread, chips or crisps, with fruit and vegetables being foods most likely to be rejected. For children with ASD, even ‘safe’ foods must conform to a rigid set of criteria in terms of appearance, smell, presentation and texture. Sensory interventions may use a Sequential Oral Sensory (SOS) approach to promote food acceptance, starting with the least anxiety-provoking type of food exposure (looking) and working gradually towards the most difficult (tasting). Some children will find even this graded approach highly problematic and so teachers or parents can model the exploratory behaviours without the requirement that the child follows suit. This creates a calm and relaxed environment in which the demands on the children are kept to a minimum.

It is not only children with SEND who can benefit from a sensory approach to exploring food. TastEd, a UK-based charity, offers support, training and resources to help schools to deliver sensory food education lessons in the classroom with great success. There are currently more than six hundred schools and nurseries using these methods to give children the chance to experience new vegetables and fruits in a positive way. 

Inspired by this work, the team behind the ‘Teach your Monster’ games has developed Adventurous Eating, which enables children to experience the sensory aspects of food at one remove, in a game experienced by a monster rather than themselves. This can serve to reduce eating-related anxiety and create a safe space in which to explore a wide range of foods. 

Familiarity is a key driver of food acceptance, and Adventurous Eating can make the sight, smell, feel, sound and even the taste of fruit and vegetables more familiar, and thereby take some of the fear out of real-world encounters with these foods which may be especially effective for children with SEND. The most recent Adventurous Eating is a game that encourages 3 to 6 year olds of all abilities to experience fruit and vegetables from a variety of cultures, including many everyday staples that we all take for granted as adults. It’s inspired by The SAPERE method, the scientific learning technique that encourages children to learn new things about food using all five senses: smell, taste, touch, vision and hearing. This method was developed by a French chemist, Jacques Puisais, and the latin word ‘sapere’ means to taste, feel and be brave. Children are supported by an adult as they take part in learning about assessing their own experiences with food. Taste education is seen as good for long-term health as the children explore the different properties of food, including use of touch and hearing.

We know that children respond well to feeding or caring for a character, and games can encourage children to help their monster try fruit and vegetables using all their senses. Research shows this is an effective way of making new food less intimidating and helping children develop a better relationship with food. It’s important to endorse bravery around food without pressure to eat, and children can be encouraged to explore new foods in a fun, tactile and engaging way, turning fear and uncertainty into excitement and adventure. As it’s all about having fun, and there should be no right or wrong as learners may also benefit from the fact that it’s their monster, rather than themselves, exploring and experiencing different foods. Children can guide the monsters in a safe environment, take ownership of them, and feel empowered and strong to help their monster on a journey. They can use their imaginations to customise their monster. Being able to bring a character to life and interact with them provides children with a voice and helps build confidence. Inclusivity can also be addressed by including all the more affordable items and those that feature prominently in non-British food cultures.

The Adventurous Eating game views fruit and vegetables through the eyes of a child—what may seem mundane to adults is adventurous to young children. The more familiar children are with foods, the more likely they are to eat them, as they develop a sense of familiarity around sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch. In the past, children were told not to play with their food—today, hearing the crunch an apple makes when a bite is taken, simply picking it up and experiencing the fresh smell, holding the fruit and feeling its shiny surface, tasting the fruity flavour, or just enjoying looking at the natural green colour, are all invaluable experiences; helping children become a little braver around food.

Lucy Cooke
Author: Lucy Cooke

Lucy Cooke
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Dr Lucy Cooke is a research psychologist specialising in children’s eating behaviour and one of the experts involved with Adventurous Eating, a new game from Teach Your Monster. The game can be played at home or at school without supervision, or it can be incorporated into teaching schedules and used in lessons, free play, snack time or carpet sessions.

Twitter: @TeachMonsters


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