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Eating is a Sensory Experience

Updated: Jun 22

Children that have difficulty with sensory perception tend to have difficulty with eating. Mealtimes involve several sensory systems (Klein, 2019)! Sensory systems are involved in looking, smelling, tasting, and hearing food. Eating requires a child to experience and tolerate various temperatures, flavors, colors, and textures in a sensitive area: the mouth! Imagine trying a new foreign food for the first time and being forced to eat it without being able to explore it with all of your senses; it would be overwhelming! If a child has abnormal sensory responses to eating, feeding becomes an overwhelming experience for all those involved in mealtimes. When eating and feeding are impaired due to sensory difficulties, occupational therapy can address the issue. Occupational therapist’s are knowledgeable about the sensory systems and how the sensory systems need to work in the body during mealtimes.

Sensory Variables (Klein, 2019), (Morris & Klein, 2000):

  • Vision → We can learn about food by looking at the food from afar or close-up, by watching others eat, how utensils interact with food, the color of food, the texture, and how it is presented

  • Smell → We can learn about food by smelling the food. A smell can be connected to an emotion or memory of past experiences. If there are negative associations with that food that is connected to a memory, it will be much hard to break the barrier. Smelling is how we taste from a distance.

  • Hearing → We can learn about food by hearing others chew or how it sounds to our ears when we chew. Carrots and chips will create a loud crunchy sound, while cheese and apple sauce will hardly make any sound.

  • Touch → We can learn about food by touching how the food feels, it is slimy, bumpy, slippery, wet, dry? Touching gives us a preview of what it may feel like in our mouth.

  • Taste → We can learn about food by how our brain receives and interprets different foods that touch our tongue. Foods can be sweet, salty, sour, spicy, and/or bitter.

  • Internal Awareness → We can learn about food by how we feel. Does the food give us a stomachache, make us go to the bathroom, feel calm, or feel excited?

  • Balance & Equilibrium → We learn about food the best when we feel well-supported and comfortable in the chair we sit in.

  • Proprioception → We learn about the food the best when we can create smooth motor movements with our body, such as chewing, bringing a spoonful of food to our mouth, or preventing a cup from tipping too much.

Causes of Sensory Issues (Marcus & Breton, 2022):

  • Limited pacifier or object-to-mouth play

  • Having sensory processing disorder (difficulty receiving environmental stimuli)

  • Food allergies

Tips to Help Sensory Issues:

  • Object sucking (pacifier, chewies that are textured)

  • Make small changes, only one at a time

  • Introduce foods through play

  • Make gradual changes to the taste of food

  • Start with simple ingredient foods (no mixed-textured foods)

  • Give the child control

  • Food Chain

  • Teach chewing skills

  • Do not force the child to complete something above their skill set (e.g., chewing a piece of steak)

  • Learn about the food by following simple steps such as tolerating it in the same room, interacting with it, smelling it, touching it, tasting it, eating it


References

Klein, M. D. (2019, November 8). Anxious eaters, anxious mealtimes: Practical and

compassionate strategies for mealtime peace. Archway Publishing.

Marcus, S., & Breton, S. (Eds.). (2022). Infant and child feeding and swallowing: Occupational

therapy assessment and intervention (2nd ed.) AOTA Press.

Morris, S. M., & Klein M. D. (2000, January 1). Pre-feeding skills: A comprehensive resource

for mealtime development. Pro-ed International Publisher.

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