5 Surprising Sensory Activities to Help Picky Eaters
Please welcome Alisha Grogan MOT, OTR/L from Your Kid’s Table. She is a pediatric occupational therapist, mom to three, and the creator of the online picky eating program, Mealtime Works. She’s going to share some powerful sensory activities to use to help picky eaters learn to eat new foods and stay at the dinner table longer. As a reminder, ILS is not a health care provider and none of our materials or services provide a diagnosis or treatment of a specific condition or learning challenge you may see in your child or student. If you seek a diagnosis or treatment for your child or student, please contact a trained professional who can provide an evaluation of the child. Affiliate links are included for your convenience.
Don’t miss the details for her free Video Series to learn the best tools to overcome picky eating without any stress. It’s only available for a limited time.
Do you have a picky eater? Did you know that there’s a BIG connection to sensory processing for a lot of picky eaters and that you can leverage sensory activities to help your picky eater tolerate sitting at the table longer and even eat more textures of food?
I can tell you it’s true as a pediatric occupational therapist that specializes in both sensory and picky eating, the connection is undeniable.
Let me explain, and then I’ll share 5 surprising sensory activities you can use to help your picky kiddo eat better…
What Does Sensory Processing Have to Do With Picky Eating?
A lot. Eating is an entirely sensory experience.
Think about it.
To even begin eating, we have to look at the food, this gives visual input to our sensory system. And, if you’ve got a picky eater, then you know that this is often the first road block. Picky eaters will look at a food and decide immediately if they’re going to eat it or not, often before they touch, smell, or taste the food.
Sometimes picky eaters smell a food though long before they see it. It’s not uncommon to hear a picky eater complain from another room, “What is that smell?!,” while dinner is being prepared.
And, if they can get past the sight and smell of the food, their sensory processing has to sift through the texture and tactile sensations from touching the food on their hands and how it feels on the inside of their mouth.
Lastly, the taste is one more sensation that the picky eater has to overcome.
Not to mention that if a picky eater is an active child that seeks out proprioception and vestibular input they might have a hard time sitting still at the table. If their sensory system is out of balance or dysregulated, then they can’t focus on eating.
5 Surprising Sensory Activities for Picky Eaters
Let’s talk about some simple ways you leverage sensory activities to actually help improve your child’s sensory processing, and as a result, their eating.
#1. Spice Painting
Painting with common spices you probably have in your pantry helps picky eaters get comfortable around different smells. And, while some picky eaters are super sensitive to smells, we also see that other picky eaters don’t seem to smell much of anything.
Both instances are problematic for accepting new and different foods. Spice painting is a fun sensory activity to either desensitize your child to smells or help them start to register smells.
And, it’s super easy…
Place spices like ground mustard seed, cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, ground cloves, turmeric, and any other powder-like spices, each into a small bowl. A teaspoon or so should be enough. Then add 1/2 – 1 tsp of water and mix. Use a paintbrush to make pictures with the different colors you created.
While you begin to prepare your spice paints, take turns smelling the spices. Talk about the smells in a neutral way. Try to avoid labeling smells as good or bad, describe them with other adjectives like sweet, spicy, earthy, etc.
#2. Play in a Sandbox
I told you these activities were surprising!
Playing in a sandbox, or other gritty textures like corn meal, birdseed, or dry rice actually help desensitize the tactile system! That’s important for picky eaters that don’t like to get messy or are very particular about the textures they eat.
I love this activity for picky eaters because it doesn’t involve food, but you’re directly working to improve their sensory processing AND this 100% translates to them being open to new textures of food over time.
To see the best results, give your child the opportunity to play in the sandbox or in a sensory bin on a regular basis.
#3. Movement Before a Meal
Lots of picky eaters want to be anywhere else but at the family dinner table, but it’s one of the best places for them to be so they can get exposed to lots of different foods that the rest of the family is eating. Some picky eaters have a hard time sitting still, and can’t even begin to think about trying new foods because they just want to get up and move.
To help your child be calm, attentive, and tolerate sitting at the table longer, try to use movement based sensory activities before you eat. Experiment with different intervals of time from 1 hour to 5 minutes before they need to sit down for their meal.
How long you complete these activities will depend on your child and will likely take some trial and error. Plus, the time it takes to calm down can vary day by day, as sensory needs do.
Here’s a list of ideas to try:
- Run around outside
- Play leap frog
- Tug of war
- Jump on a trampoline
- Go through an obstacle course
- Use joint compressions
- Ride bikes, scooters, roller blades
- Hang upside down
- Play catch, baseball, football, or any other sport in the back yard
- Do push ups, sit ups, or jumping jacks
- Bounce on a yoga ball
- Climb monkey bars
- “Flatten” your child by rolling a yoga ball over top of them with deep pressure as they lie face down on the floor
#4. Movement During a Meal
Some kids may also need a little bit of movement during a meal, too! Or, if you’re in a pinch and can’t use a movement activity before the meal, some of these activities could be helpful in giving your child steady sensory input throughout a meal, which can also have a big impact on their ability to sit and enjoy the meal.
Here are some ideas:
- Wiggle Seat (A textured, inflatable disc that a child sits on to allow subtle movement)
- Weighted Lap Pad (A heavy pillow that doesn’t provide movement per say, but the deep pressure is calming for some kids)
- Exercise Band Tied around the legs of a chair (Tying this band around the chair gives kids great proprioceptive input as they push and kick quietly against it)
- Fidget toy (*Some kids can handle a small fidget toy in their hand while they eat. But, for many kids, this will serve more as a distraction. Use your judgement and try the other activities first)
When experimenting with sensory activities before or during a meal, make sure that you try them several times. Always observe how your child responds during the meal as a result of these activities. Sensory processing is unique to every individual. What works for one child, might not be effective for another.
It’s also okay to have a few activities that you rotate through or that your child can choose from on any given day.
#5. Cook Together!
Yes, cooking is a sensory activity, the more hands on you can make it for your child, the better.
Kids at even a very young age can wash fruits and vegetables. Older kids can chop fruits and veggies. Ask your child to gather ingredients, measure them out, and mix them together.
As you cook together, your child will see, smell, touch, and maybe even taste the ingredients. This exposure helps them get comfortable interacting with different foods without the pressure or expectation that they eat it, which often comes at the dinner table.
Here are some of my favorite recipes that are perfect for picky eaters to inspire you:
- Pumpkin waffles
- Homemade hot pockets
- Baby meatballs
- Crispy potato skins
- Immune Booster Carrot Cake Smoothie for Kids
Free Video Series to Help Picky Eaters (Limited Time Only)
If you want your picky eater to eat more foods without any stress or drama, join me for a special free 3 part video series: The 2-Step Process to Move Your Child from Picky Eater to Healthy Child.
In the series, you’ll learn what common mistakes to avoid when trying to help a picky eater, and the 2 most powerful tools you can use to make a lasting difference in the foods your child willing eats. This is a rare event and will only be available for a short time! Grab a spot before it’s gone…
Click Here to Get the Free Video Series (free bonus printables too!)
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 15 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.
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