When I try to explain what I do for a living, I often say “I play in food.” Hopefully, that phrase doesn’t conjure up images of Jello™ wrestling, although I have certainly been elbow deep in Jello™ many times in my career. As a speech language pathologist who specializes in “feeding”, I work exclusively with kids from birth to ten years of age, helping with everything from breast and bottle feeding to learning to eat Brussels sprouts. I’m all about encouraging kids to try new foods in order to become adventurous eaters! True, it’s tempting for parents to say “Stop playing with your food and just eat it”, but playing in food is often the first step to tasting new foods.
Before I expound upon the joys of pudding painting and building towers of cream cheese and crackers, I want you to consider the human brain. Moment to moment, our brain receives information from all of our senses, sorts it and organizes it, decides what input is important and what can be ignored for the time being and then, asks the ultimate question: “What is the most vital piece of information that applies to what I am doing at this very moment?” It requires a very well organized brain to answer that question efficiently and effectively and the entire process is nothing short of amazing.
Over 40 years ago, Dr. A. Jean Ayres introduced the theory of sensory integration or the study of how the brain processes information from our entire sensory system. She was not just talking about the five senses commonly referred to as taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight but also the vestibular system (a function of the middle ear) and the proprioceptive system, which interprets the meaning behind a muscle contraction and movement in our joints. Thank goodness for proprioceptive input: It’s how we know how much pressure we need to peel that banana without squishing it. And where would we be without a fine tuned vestibular system? Without it, every time we leaned forward for a sip of soup, we would lose our balance and do a face plant directly in our chicken noodle!
Dr. Ayres explained it this way in her book, Sensory Integration and the Child: “Sensory integration puts it all together. Imagine peeling and eating an orange. You sense the orange through your eyes, nose, mouth, the skin of your hands and fingers, and also the muscles and joints inside your fingers, hands, arms and mouth…All the sensations from the orange and all the sensations from your hands and fingers somehow come together in one place in your brain” which allows you to make the decision on how to peel and eat the orange.
So, the next time you see your kids playing in their food, join in! If the best your little munch bug can do that day is roll a Brussels sprout across his plate, have a roller derby and make some ramps. Then, he has to PICK UP the Brussels sprout and place it at the top of the highest ramp. Then, when a leaf dangles and slows down the race, he has to PEEL it off. What happens if you LICK that Brussels sprout? Will it roll faster? The more your child interacts with a new food, the more likely he will decide on his own that he likes it. You can probably convince him to bite into it, but that won’t make him like it. Tasting food over and over is how we learn to enjoy new sensations in our mouth, but making that autonomous decision to taste something for the very first time is what builds confidence to do it again. Our role as parents is to present the food in a joyful and healthy manner and set our children up for success. And, if that means a few weeks of Brussels sprout roller derby or Yogurt Car Wash, then that’s half the fun of the exploration!
Learning to eat new foods is a process and requires all of our senses to join in on the journey! Keep in mind that we all have good and bad sensory days and your child may not be able to tolerate certain tastes, temperatures or textures if his sensory system is not organized and ready to accept new input. Take it step by step and keep it creative and fun. It’s not about the bite – he will get there – it’s about the memories your family creates in the kitchen, at the dining room table or in the backyard spitting watermelon seeds. Enjoy!
(Ayers, AJ. Sensory Integration and the Child. Los Angeles, CA: WPS: 1994. 5-6.)
About the author: Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, is a certified speech language pathologist and national speaker on the topic of picky eating. She is the author of Happy Mealtimes with Happy Kids: How to Teach Your Child About the Joy of Food! and the executive producer of the acclaimed children’s CD, Dancing in the Kitchen. Mel’s tips to help your child be a more adventurous eater can be found on her My Munch Bug facebook page or on her website www.mymunchbug.com.