How to Support Kids with Mealtime Challenges: Exploring the Sensory Journey

As a children’s dietitian, my passion is in supporting families as they navigate the intricate journey of addressing sensory-related mealtime challenges.

Through my workshops and 1:1 consultations, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing the profound impact of empowering children in the kitchen and transforming mealtimes into joyful experiences.

Navigating mealtime with a child who has sensory difficulties can be a daunting task. From taste preferences to texture aversions, each sense plays a crucial role in shaping their relationship with food. But fear not! This new series of blogs is here to help! 

 

How do children use their senses at mealtime?

To start the journey of sensory exploration during mealtime, it is important to understand what five of the main senses are.

Sight:

The way we look at food determines how we think it will taste, a prejudgement if you can call it that! This includes the size, shape, texture and colour of the food (2). External stimuli such as the room lighting/colour may also affect the visual sensory experience a child has with food – this is known as environmental modifications (1).

Smell:

Using our nose allows a child to take a sneak peak into what they could be eating. At the dinner table, it includes the aroma from the food as well as other environmental scents around the home (4). Smelling something can also bring back a memory and therefore may be a trigger for a child (2). To understand the flavour of foods, we use a combination of odour and taste buds. Taste and smell hence play a significant role in determining whether a child will decline or accept a food (3).

Touch:

Touching foods doesn’t just mean with fingers, the texture of food can be felt by the tongue, fingers, lips, teeth and palate (the roof of the mouth) (2). By using our touch senses, we can feel whether a food is: moist, dry, soft, hard, greasy, solid, soft and so on. Touching foods also allows for the opportunity in detecting the temperature of what a child is eating. It is also important to remember that we touch cutlery, our plates, the upholstery and may other things which may also affect the eating experience (1).

Hearing:

This sense includes the sound of foods in our head when we are eating, from chewing to swallowing. External environmental factors certainly are at the focus of this sense, from the clanging of cutlery, to background music or echoing voices, these can all affect the food choices little ones make (5). How sound interacts with our mealtime can even take place before food is laid out on the table, the sounds of stirring or pouring may also attribute to the overall auditory sensory experience for your child. 

Taste:

This last sense may be thought to hold the most value when it comes to eating, but from the above senses, it is clear to see that we need all 5 to build a complex picture of what we and our child eats. Taste, like our senses, can be grouped into 5 categories: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami (meating/savoury) (6). As mentioned previously, our taste receptors work closely together with our olfactory system to form the sensation of flavour (7).

Despite there being different neuropathways involving our senses, all 5 come together to help us and our children process food to produce flavour and an overall memorable sensory experience.

Eating is a sensory experience!

 

So how are these 5 senses used for child at mealtime?

Below are 6 different sensory steps that a child undertakes before eating.

  1. Visually tolerating
  2. Interacting with the food
  3. Smelling the food
  4. Touching the food
  5. Tasting the food
  6. Eating the food

From the 6 different stages above, it is clear to understand that eating and processing food is one of the most complex multisensory experiences we put our body’s through (9), and it happens multiple times a day. Therefore, as a parent it is important to appreciate that for a child whose cognition is still developing (8), the seemingly effortless task of eating can be a very overwhelming daily experience for a child.

Beyond Picky Eating

 

Now that we recognise how intricate the eating process is to a child, sensory issues can hence stem from this activity. Let’s unpack some of the sensory sensitivities that may arise in children.

Picky eating can be described as a child not eating a variety of foods (similar to that of sensory eaters) but without trigger of a sensory overload (14). Some children can have sensory processing difficulties, examples include a diagnosis of Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and developmental delays (12). Other children with sensory issues may have no diagnosis at all (12).

Sensory difficulties are estimated to be higher in the ASD population (11), with up to 90% of people with ASD experiencing said challenges (10). Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can increase sensitivity to the five senses, especially during meal times, whereby all senses simultaneously intertwine. However, it is crucial to emphasize that a child doesn’t need to present with ASD to have sensory processing difficulties (12).

Some behaviours which present in sensory difficulties whilst eating include/but is not limited to (13):

  • Strong preference for certain food texture
  • Preference for a certain brand/packaging
  • Preference for beige foods
  • Food to be shaped a certain way
  • Not wanting certain foods to touch
  • Wanting beige/predictable food

Is Your Child’s Sensory System on Overdrive or Snooze?

 

Children who experience sensory eating can be described as either being either over-sensitive or under-sensitive to triggers, this can be understood as your child needing less or more stimulation respectively (13).  It is hence important to appreciate which type of sensitivity your child is experiencing, to help support a comfortable eating environment.

Over sensitivity or hypersensitivity can be overwhelming for the child during mealtimes and may seek calm and comforting measures. Whilst those who are under sensitive of hyposensitive might require a stimulus or exaggeration of food/environment (13).

Here are some signs (click to download this as a pdf) where you can identify under or over sensitivity when eating:

 

Understanding is the first step to managing sensory difficulties

Coming to terms with sensory issues can be difficult, especially as a first-time parent. Allowing yourself to understand that there will be challenges and that not every meal will be perfect is the first step. There are ways to manage triggers and create an enjoyable mealtime environment! Our next blog explores tips for each sense, with the goal of working towards a sensory-friendly eating experience!

Would you like a tailored one-to-one online consultation with Dr. Kirsty to support you and your child in any challenges they may have with eating? Kirsty will work with you to create a bespoke & tailored approach to helping your little one, whatever the issue! Together, we can transform mealtimes into moments of joy and exploration.

Sign Up for Our Sensory Support Program!

Ready to embark on a sensory-friendly mealtime adventure with us and Grace a children’s Occupational Therapist from the Sensory Submarine?

Sign up for our waiting list today to be among the first to hear about this exciting program. Join our community, and let’s nurture nutritious habits together!

Written by Callista Mersini, Student Dietitian & Dr Kirsty Porter Children’s Dietitian.

References:

References:

1. Thompson, S.D., Bruns, D.A. and Rains, K.W. (2009). Picky Eating Habits or Sensory Processing Issues? Exploring Feeding Difficulties in Infants and Toddlers. Young Exceptional Children, 13(2), pp.71–85.

2. Food – A Fact For Life. (2019). Taste receptors.

3. Lipchock, S.V., Reed, D.R. and Mennella, J.A. (2011). The gustatory and olfactory systems during infancy: Implications for development of feeding behaviors in the high risk neonate. Clinics in perinatology, 38(4), pp.627–641.

4. North East Essex Community Services. (2011) The Smell System (Olfactory System). National Healthcare System.

5. Spence, Charles & SHANKAR, MAYA. (2010). The influence of auditory cues on the perception of, and responses to, food and drink. Journal of Sensory Studies. 25. 406 – 430. 10.1111/j.1745-459X.2009.00267.x.

6. Boesveldt, S. and de Graaf, K. (2017). The Differential Role of Smell and Taste for Eating Behavior. Perception, 46(3-4), pp.307–319.

7. Macdonald, R. (2019). The Science Behind Smell and Taste | Institute of Culinary Education.

8. Infant and Toddler Forum. (2014). Developmental Stages In Infant And Toddler Feeding.

9. NHS Borders Children and Young People’s Occupational Therapy Service. (2006). Meeting Your Child’s Sensory Needs.

10. Zeliadt, N. (2018). Sensory sensitivity may share genetic roots with autism. Spectrum | Autism Research News.

11. Miller, L.J., Schoen, S.A., Mulligan, S. and Sullivan, J. (2017). Identification of Sensory Processing and Integration Symptom Clusters: A Preliminary Study. Occupational Therapy International.

12. Arky, B. (2016). Sensory Processing Issues Explained. Child Mind Institute.

13. Eileen Lecky. (2020). Understanding Sensory Issues and their Impact on Mealtimes and Feeding. Wandsworth Community Feeding Service Multidisciplinary Feeding Team.

14. Anon, (2017). It’s Not ‘Picky Eating’: 5 Strategies for Sensory Food Sensitivities | Organization for Autism Research.

 

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