A Special Needs Guide for Learning to Eat with Your SEVEN Senses – Part One
Most of us think of five senses and the human body: Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. But, when it comes to learning to eat a wide variety of foods, two other sensory systems also come into play: The vestibular system and our sense of proprioception. As children grow, they are constantly processing sensory input, comparing it to other information stored in the brain and making decisions on how to react to that input. When it comes to trying new foods, all seven senses contribute to a child’s willingness to explore and try new foods.
How do we help kids become food explorers? By respecting their entire sensory system and gradually helping them to experience food through each sensory pathway. In this first article in a series or three, we’ll discuss the sense of sight, smell and taste. Part Two will explore the tactile (touch) and auditory (sound) sensory systems. In Part Three we’ll discuss the vestibular and proprioceptive systems.
You may have heard the phrase: “We feast with our eyes!” This is true within the first few weeks of birth, when infants begin to associate the rooting reflex with the sight of the breast. Brush the side of a newborn’s cheek and baby will reflexively turn toward the stimulation with an immediate open mouth, often gazing at the breast. Quickly the baby learns that the sight of the breast or bottle equals food and in just a few short months intentionally opens his mouth wide as his favorite food approaches. As baby grows, he’ll continue to use his vision to make decisions about food. He’ll see that raw cauliflower is not at all the same as roasted cauliflower and absolutely not the same as pureed cauliflower. He may be thinking “That white stuff looks just like mashed potatoes, the gritty food that makes me gag.” Here are three tips to help you toddler see food differently:
- Keep portions small when offering a new food:
1 TBSP is plenty at first. If they ask for more, that’s terrific!
- Offer no more than two new foods per day and for the hesitant eater, offer just one.
- Make sure the new foods shows up frequently.
Remember, it’s not always love at first sight. Sometimes a new relationship with a new food takes time.
The olfactory system or sense of smell is closely linked to our memories of childhood and emotional connections to events in our lives. Think about the pleasant smell of freshly baked bread or the sulfuric stench of rotten eggs. Do they conjure up certain memories for you? Now consider the child who has a highly sensitive olfactory system. Would certain aromas be just too much, preventing her from bringing a new food up to her nose and mouth? How does that smell compare to past experience stored in her brain? What emotions may be tied to that aroma? Here are three tips to help your child adjust to new scents during food exploration:
- Avoid very warm or hot foods at first.
The steam carries the smell immediately to the nose. Instead, wait for the food to cool slightly before presenting the dish either family style or pre-plated.
- For soups or drinks, try offering the liquids in a small glass (even a shot glass or tiny espresso cup) with a skinny straw.
Coffee stirrers are ideal. The thin straw will deliver just a small amount directly to the tongue so that the nose isn’t directly over the surface of the liquid.
- Be careful not to accidently combine two strong aromas, such as Brussel sprouts and Broccoli.
But how does smell influence taste when the food has already entered the mouth?
In our new book Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater: A Parent’s Handbook, we discuss how taste and smell work together to help a child make decisions about the flavor of food:
First, picture the inside of your nose, where there are millions of receptor cells that detect odors. Next, picture your tongue, where receptor cells for flavor (taste buds) detect five different tastes. Now, imagine breathing. It is air that carries aromas to the receptor cells and then to the olfactory nerve and the brain. If the air is circulating in your mouth while you chew and you’re not suffering from a stuffy nose, the olfactory nerve will be stimulated while you’re eating.
The sensory combination of smell and taste is what helps us perceive flavor. Keep in mind that other combinations of sensations, such as when certain receptors detect the coolness of a mint or the warmth of cinnamon spice interplay with our perception of taste. Here are three tips to help your child learn to taste new foods:
- Don’t give the phrase “I don’t like it” much attention.
Not everyone likes all foods. But, we can learn to taste foods and then determine if we “don’t like it yet.” When trying a new food yourself, model that language: “I don’t think I like it yet. I’m still learning about it. I’m glad I tried it!”
- Explore the science of smell and taste.
Try closing your eyes, holding your nose and putting a mystery-flavored jelly bean in your mouth. Can you tell what flavor it is? Most people can’t because the sense of taste and smell are no longer communicating –and thus, you won’t be able to perceive the flavor. Try it with one of your kid’s favorite foods – can they guess what it is?
- Offer Sample Sizes.
Present foods family style and offer a large scoop and a regular-sized spoon. Ask your child “Would you like a big scoop or a small sample?” and let them serve themselves. For the hesitant eater, the small sample is much more manageable, both in terms of sight, smell and hopefully, taste. Stash small tasting spoons, just like professional chefs use, in the center of the table. Kids can use these tiny spoons to sample the foods on their plates.
- Present a new food with a familiar food’s taste or texture.
If a child is not familiar with turnips but loves mashed potatoes, try a recipe like “Mashed Potatoes and More” from doctoryum.org. After building the familiarity and trust over time, the child may like cauliflower on it’s own.
In Part Two of this series, we’ll explore the sense of touch and sound…stay tuned!
Pediatrician Nimali Fernando, MD MPH and feeding specialist Melanie Potock, MA CCC-SLP are the co-authors of Raising a Healthy Happy Eater: A Parent’s Handbook. A stage-by-stage guide to setting your child on the path to adventurous eating, their book offers tips for all children and for all parents! Dr. Fernando is the founder of The Doctor Yum Project, a non-profit focused on creating a culture of wellness for families across the country. Melanie is the founder of My Munch Bug and an international speaker and media consultant on the topic of kids, food and hesitant eating. Together, they teach children to become food explorers! Learn more at www.ParentingInTheKitchen.com.