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Do you remember the first time you ate an apple? Or a spoonful of yogurt? Chances are – you probably don’t. But the foods we’re exposed to in the Early years have a much bigger impact than you might think.
Getting children to develop healthy eating habits is tough – especially when you’re experiencing fussy eating. It’s easy to get frustrated, but sensory cues are the key to getting children to develop healthy, happy and positive eating habits in later life.
How well foods go down isn’t a short journey – it begins from weaning up until around 3 – 4 years old when children start to decide what they love and what they loathe. That’s why it’s important to make the most of the first few years – once eating behaviours set in they follow us into adulthood.
Giving children a multi-sensory learning experience has been shown to work wonders – as to tackle food rejection we should look at food play in a whole new light. Let’s take a look at why children reject foods, and the ways you can help them let go of the fear of the unknown and encourage inquisitive eating habits.
It’s actually a myth that infants prefer certain foods – they have very few preferences and are keen to try new things. However, the environment and choice of food offered plays a huge role in children’s eating habits.
Meal times can be stressful. Children are often put under pressure when they eat too little or too much, and offered dessert as a reward. It’s natural to get frustrated when children won’t eat new foods, but your reaction to their rejection is vital. If children sense your frustration, this pressure alone can be very overwhelming.
Before we dive into the reasons why children reject foods and the reasons behind it, it’s worth keeping the two points below in mind:
If children have sensory issues, trying new foods can be traumatic. Let’s be honest, you might be a little apprehensive when you try something new, too.
Often, food rejection is about the way it feels or smells. Children can become stressed out by this, meaning they associate that new food with fear. The sooner we can tackle this, the better, as this fear leads to only sticking to food that’s familiar.
How to tackle this unfamiliarity? Exposure! Give them lots and lots of opportunities to try new things.
I’ve broken down the way children experience and accept food through sound, sight, smell, touch and taste. But first it’s important to know how a child interacts with the food in front of them in order to use all five senses.
Let’s look at Sue Gascoyne’s example of how a child eats an ice cream:
Understanding the way children approach food helps us introduce new foods, as we have to realise that it’s a process – it’s not immediate. Taking a creative approach to food that involves all five senses is ideal for minimising issues such as fussy eating as much as possible.
Reading stories and looking at picture books are fantastic ways for children to absorb new knowledge, and get them used to how food looks and the names we give them.
A study showed children aged 19-26 months who were read a storybook every day for two weeks were far more likely to eat foods they had been exposed to in books than foods they hadn’t. The simple act of exposure worked magic on their willingness to taste new flavours.
This visual and oral strategy can be an extra activity outside of mealtimes when the stress of getting a child to eat can be problematic. This worked particularly well when children were involved in the story and actively asked questions, as this boosted their engagement. The more interactive, the better!
The way food smells is more important than you might think. Did you know that introducing different smells increases the chance of children tasting new foods? The smell of bananas and pizza have been proven to make adults hungrier, and, although nothing has been proven, this phenomenon probably affects little ones too.
The texture of a food can be the deciding factor on whether it’s eaten or not. Some textures will appeal, and others will be met with absolute refusal. Food is more likely to be accepted if it’s familiar, but it can be difficult to introduce foods if the child really dislikes a certain texture.
Playing with food actually has a very positive effect on eating habits. In one study, when children were given jelly to play with as an activity, they were far more likely to eat it when offered it as a dessert option. Simply playing and touching the food beforehand has incredible potential to help children understand and explore new textures.
Children are at a sensory high around the 6 months mark when they’re being weaned. This makes it the ideal time to start introducing new and exciting flavours for them.
The flavours you introduce have a long-lasting effect on future likes and dislikes, which is why repetition is absolutely crucial at this point. This 2007 study tried this method with green beans. Children between 4 – 8 months were three times more likely to eat green beans after 8 days of exposure to them. Repetition and exposure are absolutely key!
I always used to tell my children: “Don’t play with your food!” Now, as a nutritionist asking childcare professionals about sensory learning and food play, I hear the same thing.
We’ve been taught that playing with food leads to bad manners. There are also concerns over food waste and how food play can be a sign of our society’s deteriorating relationship with food.
Whilst aware of these issues, childcare respondents were adamant that children need to play and stimulate their sensory organs at an early age. Children will want to play with food anyway, so enabling them to do so in a safe environment to empower their learning is more productive for everyone. As one early years professional said, “educating them about waste and caring for those that do not have comes after they fully have learnt from their basic sensory personal experiences.”
Sensory learning is an investment. Allowing children to be tactile and play with their food in a way that promotes a healthier, more open relationship with food reduces the likelihood of food rejection and wasted meals in the future.
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.