How Sensory Issues Affect Eating and Mealtime

How are your mealtimes, do they go smoothly or are they difficult? How many of you have a picky eater? Does your child eat a variety of foods that the family eats, or must you make separate meals for them? Do you eat together as a family or feed your child first? We must remember to consider the sensory system and how it can be impacting eating and mealtime for your children.

Mealtime is a multisensory experience. There are lots of tastes, colors, textures, and smells. It’s also a social event and a time for communication with family or friends. We have to be able to process sensory input and filter out what’s not needed to appropriately participate in mealtime.

How Can Sensory Issues Affect Eating and Mealtime?

1. Attention and Engagement 

Sensory modulation difficulties can impact a child’s ability to attend to mealtime depending on their arousal level. If a child’s arousal level is “too high,” they will have a hard time sitting still and staying at the table for meals. If a child’s arousal level is “too low,” they may appear to have low energy to sit up right in their chair and feed themself. Heavy work activities prior to mealtime including pushing/pulling/lifting weighted toys/objects can organize the nervous system and help with arousal level and attention for both types of arousal levels. Have your child help set the table. Create an obstacle course prior to sitting down for mealtime. Try a visual timer or a visual schedule for those who have difficulty staying at the table. Set clear expectations for your child’s behavior and reward them for expected behaviors (e.g. you earn a star for every minute at the table, 5 stars=earning a preferred toy).

2. Posture, Coordination, and Movement

Being able to move the muscles of the mouth and tongue in a coordinated manner to move the food and swallow requires proper sensory modulation. A child needs to be able to sit upright during mealtime to allow for a stable base and be able to chew foods. Kids need adequate body awareness and proper graded movements to pick up their spoon or fork and scoop or stab the food and bring it to their mouths. They have to be able to reach, grab a cup and bring it to their mouth, and then place it back down on the table without spilling. Again, heavy work activities can help with the graded force and body awareness for mealtime. Provide proper seating arrangements with their trunk supported and feet stabilized on the ground or foot rest. Blow bubbles, drink through a straw, and practice licking peanut butter off of a spoon (or another sticky food like pudding if allergic) to strengthen muscles of the mouth. 

3. Toleration of different foods and textures

Decreased sensory discrimination can result in decreased awareness of food in and around the mouth. These kids need more input to “feel” the food inside of their mouth. 

They prefer crunchy, hard, sour or spicy foods and may overstuff their mouths when feeding in an attempt to notice the food inside their mouth. They benefit from “waking up” the muscles prior to eating such as a vibrating toy or toothbrush. Add more flavors (sweet, sour, salty) to their foods to help them eat more variety. Others may be overly sensitive and prefer only one texture of food (e.g. purees) and refuse or even gag when eating different textures such as lumpy or crunchy. Try exploring different flavors and textures using spoons, chew toys or dippers with tactile input. 

Make exploration of different foods fun and safe! Play with foods, make mealtime messy. Cook with your kids, allow them to add ingredients or stir and describe the different properties of each food. Sensory bins filled with things such as rice, beans, pom poms, feathers, popcorn kernels, etc. can also allow for a safe way to explore various textures. Painting with food is another safe, fun way to explore different foods. 

Differences with sensory processing and modulation can impact a child’s participation in eating and mealtime. It’s important to observe your child and gain an understanding of their sensory profile and sensory preferences to properly intervene and provide sensory rich experiences and/or make sensory adaptations to their environment so they can successfully participate in eating and mealtime. 

*If you feel your child’s sensory differences are impeding their participation in daily activities, talk to your pediatrician or OT. 

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