Whether you have given it much thought, we all have some sort of memory associated with our food experiences. It is through these memories, tied directly to our senses of touch, sight, smell, and even sound, that we build our expectations of what to expect when trying new foods. As adults, we often forget what it was like growing our food interests and preferences, and as parents, it is our role to provide opportunities for our children to explore and experience food.
One of the best ways to explore foods is through food play and sensory experience. Our sensory system provides us with a unique ability to form both positive and negative associations with our experiences. As we create positive experiences around foods, we begin to anticipate what to look forward to and how to prepare our internal sensory receptors for what is about to enter our mouths. Once we have a better understanding of what we have experienced, we can start adding new foods to our preferred food list. Let’s take a look at some ways you can incorporate the senses with your child’s food play and exploration.
Sight: Describe what you see
When you present food to your child, talk about what it looks like. Do this either before your child touches the food with their hands or as the child engages with curiosity. Describe the colors; is it a solid color or are there several colors? How does the texture look; is it smooth, bumpy, lumpy, fluffy? Describe the shape; is it round, squiggly, large, small, solid, liquid, etc.?
Smell: Describe scents and odors
Have the child pick the item up, or the plate holding the food, and bring it toward their nose. If the child is extremely avoidant of new foods, you can cup your hand and wave from the food toward the child’s face to catch a sniff. Describe the smell; is it sweet, sour, spicy, etc. Then ask the child to think of other foods that smell similar. This helps trigger memories of familiar smells and prepares you for how they might react to the new food in their mouth.
Touch: Engage your hands and skin
Touch is a big step for advancing the food experience. Try to avoid utensils during new food exploration so the child must use his or her fingers to make direct contact with the food. Describe the texture; is it smooth, soft, hard, firm, squishy, wet, sticky, etc. How is the temperature; is it warm, cool, or cold? Allow them to poke foods with a finger, stir with a finger, roll foods between fingers or hands, mash, squeeze, or break foods into pieces.
Sound: What sounds can you make?
Have the child manipulate the food with their fingers, mouth, or utensils to create different sounds. Describe the sounds you hear as you interact with food. Think about a goldfish. If you push it onto a hard surface with your fingers it makes a crumbling sound. With an open mouth, you can hear the goldfish crack as it breaks in two between your front teeth. With a closed mouth, you hear the mash and smush of the pieces grinding between back teeth. Now think about an apple. The sound of cutting into a solid apple is louder than nibbling on a skinless slice. Model how the sound is different when cutting with utensils versus biting with teeth and see if the child can imitate your sounds.
If your child is nervous about chewing and swallowing new food, have them touch the food with their finger then bring their finger to the tongue. The child can touch the food to the lips then lick their lips, lick the food directly, or accept a piece in an open or closed mouth. Encourage multiple tastes and model holding food in the mouth for 2 to 3 seconds either between clenched teeth, on the tongue, or in a closed mouth to fully taste. Then describe what the mouth experiences with the new taste; how does it feel on the tongue? How does it feel in your cheek? Talk about how the sensory components of temperature, texture, and taste change from touching the food to putting it directly to the mouth.
Always model what you expect your child to do. Showing them how to interact with foods builds confidence and decreases anxiety about what to expect. Even if your child is still hesitant and simply observes, you are providing a detailed view of the sensory experience just by demonstrating and describing.