"Don't play with your food" is as old a dinner table rule as "Don't chew with your mouth open". But you may want to rethink that policy, especially for picky eaters. Letting kids use all of their senses to explore new foods gives them positive food experiences and encourages them to--yes!--eventually taste foods they’re initially skeptical of.
In a study published in Public Health Nutrition, researchers from Finland describe "sensory-based food education" programs that are common in preschools there. The programs include activities like preparing salads, growing vegetables in a garden or on a windowsill, taking field trips to pick berries, and participating in "sensory sessions" where children touch, listen, taste, and smell different kinds of foods—then share observations with each other.
They found that preschoolers who participated in this food education chose more fruits and vegetables from a buffet compared to those who didn't receive it. Researchers say this sensory-based education helps children explore food with all five senses and instills a joy of eating. They also note that the findings held true even if there was a high level of pickiness in the group—which shows that "positive peer modeling" can also encourage kids to try new foods.
Makes total sense, says Melanie Potock, author of Adventures in Veggieland. "The best way to help kids feel comfortable trying new foods is via food play, so that children can explore all the sensory properties of food and become more comfortable with how it will eventually feel in their mouths," she says. "That means learning with all of the senses, not just sight."
After all, she says, kids learn subjects like math and language through a variety of ways—with experiments, hands-on activities, and manipulatives—not just through visual input. Learning about food is no different.
So how can you give your child this kind of food education at home? For starters, let kids help with meal prep, says Potock. They'll learn how all different kinds of foods feel, look, and smell, and what they sound like when they're cut or cooked. Even if they don't taste that particular food, that's valuable stuff.
Food crafts are another fun way to teach kids about food. (And the activities can be used for a snack too!) Here's one Potock suggests:
Cut a rinsed and dried milk carton in half, keeping the top with the spout and discarding the bottom half. Have your kids wash and dry a bunch of asparagus stalks, coat the outside of the carton with cream cheese, and build an asparagus log cabin. Include some carrot or jicama sticks, blueberries for cobblestones, or thin slices of raw turnip for roof tiles. Pop it in the fridge and serve it as an afternoon snack. "When kids engage in sensory food play, it's amazing how often they'll nibble on a new vegetable," she says.
But most of all, Potock says, have fun with it. "Learning to be an adventurous eater involves one of the most important senses of all, and that's our sense of humor. Lots of laughter is an essential ingredient for every food play recipe."
You can find more food crafts (and recipes) in Potock's book Adventures in Veggieland.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of the forthcoming book The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.