It’s an age-old expression, often heard at dinner tables where pouty young children sit and fiddle with their uneaten veggies in order to avoid putting them anywhere near their mouth: “Don’t play with your food!” Speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists who incorporate feeding into their therapy sing a different tune. They say, “Let’s play!”

Awareness of this encouragement has grown in recent years, and for good reason: children who are prompted to explore the various properties of foods through sight, sound, touch and smell often experience notable reductions in their anxieties about eating. From a clinical perspective, this approach is vital to desensitizing a child’s hypersensitivity towards certain tastes, textures and temperatures, or to building a heightened awareness of food properties to those that present with hyposensitivity. It also garners interest and motivation- two factors that are keys to success in feeding therapy.

Sensory processing difficulties can manifest themselves in a variety of ways in children. The following are signs that a child who seems to be a “picky eater” is actually a problem feeder, and may require therapeutic intervention from an experienced therapist:

  • Tolerates a restricted range or variety of foods (usually less than 20 foods)
  • Does not acquire new foods when dropping other foods from repertoire
  • Exhibits poor growth due to poor eating habits
  • Vomits, gags or chokes when eating
  • Demonstrates inappropriate behaviors associated with mealtimes
  • Refuses entire categories of food textures and/or groups (i.e., avoids all crunchy foods or all hot foods)

There are various types of feeding therapy strategies that exist and every individual therapist differs in their approach. However, by considering “eating” as the last step-as opposed to the only step- in the process of consuming a food is vital. The following are examples of stepping stones to that end goal:

  • Touching foods to leg/arm/chin/nose/mouth
  • Smelling foods
  • Touching foods via utensil
  • Touching foods with hand/fingers
  • “Kissing” foods (i.e., in play or kissing them goodbye when ready to throw away)
  • Licking foods
  • Biting foods, then spitting out in a napkin or garbage can
  • Holding a food on tongue for 5-10 seconds before spitting out

The use of visuals can also do wonders for children. Token boards often provide the motivation necessary for achieving the stepping stones of desensitization, as well as verbal encouragement, positive feedback, patience and a “no pressure” attitude. Consider a visual reinforcement board that encourages a child to interact with their food in various ways, such as the one pictured below:

Remember: Trust is essential, and force-feeding is strictly forbidden. Although the road to getting a child to eat their veggies may be a long one, it is important to keep in mind that feeding therapy is a marathon, not a sprint. By making the act of playing with foods and eating a fun experience, children are more likely to want to take part. So play away!