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Whether your child is 6 months old or 6 years old, he’s learning to eat a variety of foods thanks to your terrific parenting and his amazing sensory system! Becoming an adventurous eater and trying Brussels sprouts, asparagus, salmon and any new food depends on more than just our sense of taste. It’s crucial to take in and process information from all our senses to feel safe putting new foods in our mouth. Consider not only the sense of taste, but also smell, touch, sight and even sound. Plus, there are three senses that directly influence a child’s ability to enjoy all kinds of foods — proprioception, interoception and the vestibular sense.
Our vestibular system helps us feel grounded and keep our balance. When 6-month-olds are ready for their first taste of puree or eager to hold a slice of soft avocado in their tiny fists, they rely on the vestibular sense to keep them upright and steady. It’s crucial to have the right supportive high chair to ensure that your child isn’t wobbly when trying to pick up foods for the first time. That stability also helps them control their lips, jaw and tongue to safely swallow each new texture. Be sure that baby is seated upright and not leaning back, even if you need to add some folded towels behind his back to offer additional support. Roll up some small hand towels to wrap around his hips for extra stability. If his feet don’t reach the foot rest, just raise it up by duct taping a long, narrow box onto the footrest so that his little feet can stabilize his entire body. Ever try eating with your feet dangling off a bar stool? It’s not easy! We need our feet to eat!
Our sense of proprioception works along with the vestibular sense to help us feel grounded. The muscles, joints and nerves in our limbs constantly send signals to the brain, even when we are seated in a high chair. Those messages aid coordination so that we don’t knock over our glass of milk. They help us scoop up our breakfast cereal with a spoon in one fluid motion, bringing it up to our mouth without accidentally getting cereal up our nose! Thank goodness for these two senses working together to keep accidents, spills and messes to a minimum. Children are developing this sense as they grow, and occasional spills provide feedback to the brain that it still needs to fine tune the sense of proprioception for smoother movements and less-frequent mishaps.
How do we know if we are hungry? That’s the sense of interoception, which is our ability to sense what we feel inside our bodies. You can boost the signals of interoception by ensuring that your child comes to the table truly hungry by keeping him on a feeding schedule, as described in this article.
But isn’t eating all about taste? Actually, it’s about flavor. When we taste foods, we depend on receptors on our tongue to detect sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. As we chew the food, the taste combines with odor molecules that travel up the back of the throat, sending messages to the brain, where we determine if we enjoy the flavor or not. Taste plus smell equals flavor. When you consider how many combinations of aroma and tastes a child encounters, it’s astounding!
What about sight? Is it true that we feast with our eyes, even as a kid? Certainly, the sense of sight is the first encounter with food for many children. When kids gaze at the food on their plate, their brain begins to compare the sight of the food to other food memories. For example, he may be thinking that new pasta noodle looks sort of like mac and cheese, but it’s got a curly noodle and a red sauce. The child then begins to make decisions about that new dish. “I like noodles, but do I like curly ones? I like cheese sauce, but should I try the red sauce?” Multiple research studies report that sight plays an important role in helping a child make a final decision about trying new foods. For example, if your child sees you smile when you present the new pasta dish, he’s much more likely to try it. If a new food is paired with a semi-preferred food, he’s more likely to try the semi-preferred food again. And, one aspect of sight that is most often overlooked in our busy lives: making food visually appealing. Take a few extra minutes to present the food in a pleasing manner, as if you were serving it to a guest. The plate itself can make a difference, too! Want your child to eat more greens? Research from Cornell University appears to encourage parents to provide green plates for family-style serving. The kids are more likely to serve themselves more greens on a green plate. Worth a try!
How can we help kids do more than just look at the food? It starts with touch. A variety of research shows that kids who play (e.g. touch, manipulate, tear, cut, etc.) with food tend to taste new foods better than kids who aren’t allowed to experience food through sensory food play. When we touch foods via kitchen prep, cooking and even helping to plate each dish before serving, they get a chance to make friends with the food. It truly does make a difference, and it’s proven in multiple studies.
Sounds in our environment can alter our perception of taste. Research from the U.K. shows that when bass music is played in the background, we perceive more bitter tastes on our tongue. When treble music is played in the background, we perceive more sweet tastes on our tongue. Plus, even with our lips closed, we can hear crunching in our head, because the sound waves travel through the bones in our jaw and face to the inner ear, which sends those sound signals to our brain. Once again, those sounds are compared to other auditory memories in our brain — and that helps us determine whether to continue chewing the food or possibly spit it out because it doesn’t sound like we expected.
So, the next time you enjoy a family meal together, consider the variety of sensory input that your meal provides. Your child isn’t just tasting the food, he needs to hear, smell and touch it to create positive experiences over time. He needs to feel grounded and aware of how his body moves in space to ease frustration at the dinner table, fork a few peas and avoid spilling his milk. He needs to feel hungry to want to fill his belly with healthy foods. Parent proactively and bring him into the kitchen to help prep and cook, create a windowsill garden any time of year and even shop for healthy foods together. The more experiences, the more sensory input and the better success you’ll have!
About the Author: Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, is an international speaker on the topic of feeding babies, toddlers, and school-age kids. She is the co-author of the award-winning Raising a Healthy Happy Eater: A Stage-by-Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating (2015) and Baby Self-Feeding: Solutions for Introducing Purees and Solids to Create Lifelong Healthy Eating Habits (2016). The tips in her latest book, Adventures in Veggieland: Help Your Kids Learn to Love Vegetables with 100 Easy Activities and Recipes (2018) are based on the latest research and Melanie’s 20 years of success as a pediatric feeding therapist. Melanie’s advice has been shared in a variety of television and print media, including The New York Times, CNN.com, Huffington Post and Parents Magazine. Visit her at www.MelaniePotock.com for more articles, professional tips, and helpful videos to raise your adventurous eater!
The content provided in this article is intended for informational purposes only. It is not recommended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem without consulting a qualified healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical questions or concerns. See additional information.