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Why can’t you just eat it?
We’ve all wanted to say this to our children at one time or another. The question is why they can’t just eat it? Eating may seem like a basic skill we are born with, but it is more complex than we think.
Eating is a sensory process and approximately one in six children suffer from sensory processing issues.
While food sensory issues can be more common in those on the autism spectrum, or those with ADHD, it is not a condition exclusive to the neurodivergent community. Sensory issues can affect all aspects of living and there is a reason for this. In kindergarten, we learned that there are five senses, however this isn’t completely true.
Yes, there are 5 basic senses which are:
- Ophthalmoception (Eyes) Sight, or visual perception
- Audioception (Ears) Hearing, or auditory sensations
- Gustaoception (Tongue), Sense of taste
- Olfacoception or Olfacception (Nose), Sense of smell
- Tactioception (Skin), Sense of touch
However, there are also four basic internal senses which are:
- Thermoception (Skin), Lack or increase of heat (temperature)
- Proprioception (Body Parts), Awareness of body parts without visual input
- Nociception (Whole Body), Sensation of pain in the body (skin, body organs, etc.)
- Equilibrioception (Whole Body), Sense of balance (determined by ear fluid)
And there are additional Human Senses
- Kinesthetic Sense (Whole Body), Sense of acceleration
- Tactility (Mostly the Skin), Perception of pressure
- Chemoreception (Blood and Brain), Sensation of hunger, thirst, vomiting and suffocation
- Stretch Reception (Muscles, Joint and Skin), Sense of gag reflex, gas distension, excretion, etc.
- Cutaneous Reception (Skin), Sense of skin vasodilation (like flushed skin)
- Synaesthesia (Body Parts), Combination of senses (like smiling at someone’s voice)
There are other debated senses, such as intuition, but that’s a conversation for another day.
Now let’s look at all these senses and see how many of them we use while eating:
- Before we begin to eat, the first senses we use are: ophthalmoception, audioception and olfacoception (sight, hearing and smell).
- These senses are especially engaged if we are cooking the food (or if it’s being cooked in front of us).
- We will see it, smell it and even hear it (sizzle, sizzle). The process of sensing food being made will trigger the body to start releasing digestive juices and our hunger hormones (ghrelin).
Our sense of hunger is another sensation in the body.
Then when we sit down to eat the food, again we see it and smell it, but we will also feel it. Even when we use cutlery, we can assess the texture of the food by how it interacts with the knife and fork. If a steak cuts easily, we know it will be nice and tender. We then put the food in our mouth and again there are many different sensations, as the inside of our mouth perceives touch quite differently from our skin.
We perceive the texture of the food, the pressure (how easy is it to chew) and the temperature. Finally, as we begin to chew and move the food around, we will experience gustaoception (the taste).
Of course, most foods do not just have one flavour, and most dishes contain many different ingredients with a multitude of different flavours working in harmony to create a pleasing culinary experience. While this is a foodie’s dream, it may be a nightmare to someone with food sensory issues.
Now that we have looked at all the senses involved in eating, let’s look at what it is means when a child (or adult) has sensory issues.
Our nervous system is constantly taking in information from the outside world. In other words, it is sensing the environment we are in. Our brain also helps to determine what information is important and what information isn’t. To put it simply, for a person with sensory issues, it may mean their brain is either filtering out too much or too little information. Meaning they may either be hyposensitive (Under-sensitive) or hypersensitive (over-sensitive).
- A child that is hyposensitive may benefit from extra stimulus.
- A child with hypersensitivity may be the opposite; they may not like loud noises, crowds and bright lights.
However, it is not always black and white, and some children may be hyposensitive in some areas and hypersensitive in other areas. A child with sensory issues may have trouble focusing at school, either because they are under-stimulated or over-stimulated. An overstimulated child may be unable to focus on the teacher because they are distracted by the other sounds, sights and smells in the classroom.
A child who is overstimulated may also act out with excessive movement or noise or even intense emotional reactions because they are unable to process all the information around them. A child with sensory issues may try to avoid baths or showers, getting nails clipped and hair brushed or cut. Also common among sensory-sensitive kids are repetitive self-stimulating behaviours, such as hand flapping, twirling, spinning etc.
Considering, how many senses are involved in eating, it’s no wonder that a child with food sensory issues may have food aversions.
Here are some strategies to address food sensory issues at the dinner table:
Smaller bites and less food on the plate seem more acceptable to a child. Cut food into smaller pieces and serve less on the plate so the food stays separate. Bento boxes and plates with sections are an excellent tool for keeping food separate. Smaller cutlery that’s easier for them to manage also helps.
If your child is overly sensitive to strong taste, use less seasoning on their food and then allow them to use dips to flavour the food to their liking. This will not only help your child to learns flavours, but also give them a sense of autonomy.
Keep Mealtimes Calm and Fun
Dinner time with kids can be stressful, especially on weeknights. Parents are under so much pressure to prepare a healthy meal, feed it to their kids and then get them off to bed. Often times, meals need to be prepared after a long day of work. Kids can sense we are stressed, and this adds to their own anxiety and can increase their aversions to food.
The secretion of the hormone cortisol interferes with our hunger hormone and our ability to digest food properly. So, take a deep breath, and do what you can to let go of your stress from the day before sitting down to mealtimes. Talk to your child about their day or a fun plan for the weekend. This will keep the topic off what food they are, or are not, eating.
Lower the lights and put on some calming music. This will not only sooth any sensory issues, but it can also be fun your child, like they are eating in a fancy restaurant. If your child is overly sensitive to strong food smells, open a window, or have your kitchen fan on to reduce the food scents. You could even spray some calming essential oils in the dinning area to mask any smell. I like lavender and lemon because they are calming but not overpowering.
It’s okay to let a child play with their food to get a sense of the touch and smell. Further, sensory play with non-food items outside of mealtimes can also help to address sensory aversion.
Here are some of our favourite sensory play activities:
- Natural gluten-free play dough (we make our own!)
- Water play
- Sensory buckets with different items such as colourful stretchy strings, colourful wool, pom-poms and feathers. Be careful with choking hazards!
Here are 4 tips on how to increase stimulation in hyposensitive individuals, as learned from occupational therapists to address my own child’s hyposensitivity:
- Electric toothbrush (the vibrations in the mouth will help to increase the sensations of food)
- Alternate between crunchy and soft bites of food
- If over-stuffing occurs, gently squeeze the child’s cheeks so they can feel the sensation in their mouth easier
- Smaller bites and less food at a time; avoid stuffing and risk of choking
If you suspect that your child has food sensory issues, you can ask for a referral to an occupational therapist or a feeding specialist. An occupational therapist can help to identify sensory issues, as well as recommend coping methods, exercises, and activities.
If you think that your child’s food sensory issues are causing nutrient deficiencies, then we can help. We have experience working with children with a variety of feeding challenges. We can recommend new strategies and meal ideas that take a child’s particular needs into consideration.
Kirsten Colella, CNP, studied chemical engineering at the University of Toronto and afterwards graduated from the Institute of Holistic Nutrition with high honours. Kirsten, a Holistic Nutritionist and certified yoga teacher, is the mother of three energetic kids, one of whom has sensory issues. Kirsten enjoys making healthy food for and with her children. You can see Kirsten’s healthy recipes, on Instagram @essentialbalanceholistic