I’m Dr Lucy Cooke and I am research psychologist specialising in children’s eating behaviour and expert advisor on the non-profit kids game Teach Your Monster: Adventurous Eating. In this blog for London Mums magazine, I’ll explain how a sensory approach to exploring food can help children with SEND. For children with SEND, eating and feeding difficulties are common. Neuro-divergent children often experience the taste, smell, sight and feel of food differently to neurotypical children. This is due to altered sensory thresholds in one or more senses leading to heightened or indeed reduced sensitivity.
For instance, children with an over-sensitivity to taste will dislike strong flavours, while those with an under-sensitivity to taste will prefer foods with a particularly strong flavour and often want to add seasoning or sauces to their foods. Equally, children with a heightened tactile sensitivity will dislike and avoid touching certain food types, while those with reduced tactile sensitivity may touch or play with food more frequently.
These sensitivities can greatly impact a child’s diet and nutritional intake, and it’s common for children with SEND to eat a limited range of ‘safe’ foods, often the same ones day after day, avoiding unfamiliar foods and those with certain textures or even colours. These foods will be refused and their presence on a child’s plate may cause significant anxiety.
Exploring food outside of mealtimes using all five senses provides such children with the opportunity to experience a wide range of different foods in a positive and non-threatening way.
A key driver of food acceptance is familiarity, and making the sight, smell, feel, sound and taste of food familiar helps to reduce anxiety and may be particularly effective for children with SEND. Exploration of food using the five senses can bring significant benefits, not only for children but also for parents as it helps children build a much better long-term relationship with food. The SAPERE method of sensory education was first developed in the 1970s by French wine expert and chemist, Jacques Puisais, it was created out of the conviction that taste education could widen a child’s dietary repertoire. In Latin, SAPERE means ‘to taste,’ ‘to feel’ and ‘to know,’ and this sensory awareness method can easily be adapted to all learning abilities and ultimately helps younger children to understand and enjoy the pleasures of a varied and balanced diet. Research from Europe where the method is used widely, shows increased eating and enjoyment of fruits and vegetables in children who have experienced this form of learning.
Parents often struggle to get children to eat healthily, and including five portions of fruit or vegetables into their child’s diet may feel like a never-ending battle. However, using the five senses can, in time, help widen a child’s tastes. It’s about equipping children with a sensory knowledge of food and helping them discover the joy of food in a fun and exciting way. A key message is not to focus initially on children necessarily having to eat or like the food, but instead experience food in other ways, and tailored to the individual child according to their needs and abilities.
Easy sensory ideas
There are some great free resources available to parents for extra support. The charity TastEd or instance has activities, lessons and videos for parents to use at home. While, the not-for-profit organisation Teach Your Monster has an online game, Teach Your Monster: Adventurous Eating which allows children to help their own monster use its five senses to explore a rainbow of fruit and vegetables with other monster friends.
Here are some easy to implement ideas to get you started, and remember to get children involved at every stage – a trip to the local market or fruit and veg aisles in the supermarket is an experience in itself!
Choose a colour and gather together as many fruit and vegetables in that category as possible. For example, if your child chooses red, include a tomato, an apple, a strawberry, a pepper and so on. Talk about the different shades of red, look closely at the colours through a magnifying glass, and discuss the different shapes and sizes.
Pick a few types of fruit and vegetables, fresh, dried or tinned, and think about the different sounds they make when eaten or chopped. Bite a fresh apple for a loud, crunchy noise, then try again with their hands over their ears. Slice a piece of tinned peach for a softer sound. It’s ok if your child doesn’t eat it, it’s all about listening to the sounds.
There are so many different exciting textures to explore with fruit and vegetables. The juiciness of an orange, the furry skin of a peach, the bumpy surface of a raspberry or the smooth, powdery skin of a mushroom. Get children to close their eyes, feel a range of fruit and veg to try and guess what they are.
The smell of food contributes greatly to its flavour and is an important stepping stone to tasting. Scratch the skin of a grapefruit to release the zingy, citrus aromas and ask what your child can smell and what it reminds them of. This is a good activity for children to undertake with their eyes closed. To encourage children to detect smells from a distance, perhaps peel an onion and see how far away they can identify the smell!
Discover how certain vegetables can taste different depending on how they are prepared. Prepare a carrot in several ways such as grating, cooking, liquidising in a soup, or simply raw – ask your child how the taste differs for each one, whether they have a favourite and why. Never force a child to try something and only ever offer very small quantities to begin with.
Please send me any questions on this my sensory approach to exploring food that can help children with SEND.
This is me!
I spent fifteen years at University College London developing and testing interventions aimed at increasing children’s intake of fruits and vegetables, with a particular focus on fussier or pickier children.
I have over 50 academic publications to my name and, with Dr Laura Webber, I have written a book for parents on child feeding “Stress-free feeding: how to develop healthy eating habits in your child.”
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