Sensory Food Education - building a lifelong love of healthy foods through Sensory Weaning
Almost all of us have worried at one time or another about the amount of fruit and vegetables our babies and toddlers are eating. From those first tastes to more established weaning, and particularly when taking a baby-led or child-led approach to feeding, ensuring your little one eats a good balance of fruit and vegetables can be a worry.
The Government recommends that all children eat 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day. However, recent research suggests that nearly a third of primary age children eat less than one portion of fruit and vegetables a day (Gov.UK) and that many pre-schoolers often have days where they eat no fruit or vegetables at all (Childfeedingguide.co.uk).
Fruit and vegetables are an essential part of a balanced diet and are important for providing protection against disease. However, many babies and children show a dislike for vegetables in particular and make a beeline towards sweeter foods. This natural bias is totally normal, and absolutely manageable (we’re here to help with that part!). But it’s important to recognise that handing over control to your child on what to eat – when we see them choosing not to engage with the foods we know they should be (vegetables) - is one of the reasons many parents opt for combination or traditional weaning over child-led.
So how do you encourage your baby to choose the broccoli over the bread? The peas over the pasta? The carrots over the cheese?
The answer to this question is multi-faceted. It’s a HUGE topic, and over the course of our blog series we’ll be delving into this topic to provide you with a tool kit of tips and techniques, knowledge and advice that will help you navigate your way through it with ease.
For now though, we’re going to start with the understanding that reluctance to eat certain foods is often related to an unfamiliarity with appearance, texture, or taste. This understanding is so fundamental that it’s now made its way into the Department for Education’s EYFS curriculum under the topic of Sensory Food Education – a curriculum that encourages children to explore food using all their senses, to help them learn to love eating vegetables and fruit for life.
Whilst we stand behind Sensory Food Education 100% we’re incredibly passionate that using our senses to develop a love of food need not wait until pre-school, and nor should it. By helping your baby use their sight, smell, touch and sound, as well as taste, to explore their food – in a process we call Sensory Weaning – you’re building incredible foundations for food acceptance from the very start of your baby’s weaning journey.
So how does Sensory Weaning help your baby learn to love their greens?
- The 2 golden rules of Sensory Food Education are 1) no one has to try and 2) no one has to like. Translated, we’re basically talking about taking the pressure off. It can take between 15-20 exposures (or offerings) before a child is willing to put a new food in their mouth. In fact some research suggests this is an underestimate and the number of exposures required is nearer 200. Whatever the actual figure, it’s important to try not to rush this process and to not become too frustrated by it. Not easy, we know! You can read more about how our emotions as parents at the dinner table can influence our babies development in one of our later blogs 😉
- Try offering foods in different forms. The sight, touch, sound and smell one food makes can dramatically change through the way it’s presented. Take carrots as an example. Cooked carrot batons sound, feel and smell different to raw ones. Grated carrot is very different to mashed carrots. Roasted different to steamed. You will very likely find your child dislikes a food offered in one form but likes it if offered in another way.
- Think outside of mealtimes. Opportunities for your baby to be exposed to a certain food can take many forms and is not restricted to simply offering that food at the dinner table as part of a meal or as a snack. Any contact your child has with a food makes it more familiar, and so increases their willingness to try it. Using real food as part of playtime is a great way to do this, and fruit and veg lend themselves to all sorts of sensory play. You’ll find lots of examples on our website including Vegetable Paint Stamps; Edible Paints and various games to play with berries and summer fruits or check them out in this blog.
But what else is out there to help? We’ve learnt that it can take between 15-20 exposures of a new food before a child is willing to put it in their mouth. But it’s really important to acknowledge that buying, cooking and serving a food that we fully expect to be refused entirely or simply squashed and dropped to the floor, is more than a little frustrating. Fruit and veg is expensive, and when you’re shopping on a tight budget, buying food you know will go to waste is just not an option.
That’s where the Bib & Tray Kit becomes your new best friend. It comprises a large sensory tray that sits on top of any highchair, and a bib that attaches to the front of the tray to close the gap where food is otherwise dropped and lost to highchair seats and laps.
For babies, it affords them a large surface on which to confidently explore their food using all their senses, by keeping food within their reach. The tray has a lip around the rim to stop food rolling to the floor and it is wide enough to prevent babies from dropping food over the sides. For parents, this kit removes the psychological barriers of food mess and food waste that in a very real way, often cloud the decision to take a more sensory approach to weaning. For more information on how the Bib & Tray Kit can help address food waste, check out our blog here.