Eating is tricky
This is a guest post from our Learn Play Eat feeding therapy advisor, Laura Simmons, Paediatric Occupational Therapist and founder of Theratrak (tech startup for Allied Healthcare)
Eating is tricky.
New foods are tricky too.
All new foods are tricky no matter who we are. If we are a fussy or picky eater this problem is even more evident.
But when we try a new food we all go through the same process, some might be a little faster than others. We all learn about the food before we eat it.
This might seem silly to some who are not fussy but let’s imagine for a second that we went on a holiday to a foreign country that you’d never been to before and the national dish was something that was normally not what you would consider a dinner time meal.
This happened to me recently and I think it’s an amazing way to think about how our bodies and brains learn about food before we eat it.
The country I want to talk about is Peru and the food I want to talk about is Cuy or in English guinea pig.
Now to those of us in western society guinea pigs are known as pets and not a dinner time meal. In Cusco, Peru they are a staple meal that have been eaten for a very long time and very much a part of their heritage.
Now, this isn’t a story about the beautiful country that is Peru. It’s about how I worked with my body and brain to try something that I wasn’t sure about.
To start off with I needed to tolerate the food being on my plate in front of me, it took me 3 restaurants to build up the courage to even order it. Would I like it, would it be familiar or a completely new taste? I had no learnt experience of this food, only the waiters telling me that it was delicious.
Then once it was on the plate in front of me, I looked at it and used my knife and fork to figure out what it’s texture was, how firm was it, would it be an easy or hard food to eat.
Once my body and brain were ok with this I used my hands to feel it and nose to smell it. Did it feel slimy or were there crunchy pieces, I know that I like crunchy pieces on pork crackle so maybe it would be the same. It smelt like a roast this was ticking boxes in my brain to say, yes, this is a safe food.
Finally, I picked a piece up and touched it to my lips to see if it was it hot or cold. I used my tongue to give it a lick and the flavour tasted similar again to something I’d had before. So once again I moved closer to eating this food because my body and brain both used their senses to learn about the food before I ate it.
I did eat it and it was very tasty but also a very new experience for my brain.
Now if we think about fussy eaters especially young ones, this is something their brains and bodies go through every time a new food is presented or a food is presented in a different way.
They are using their learnt history of the world (which isn’t usually a lot) in combination with a significant amount of trust in their carer to try new foods like this 5-6 times every day! How stressful!!!
So how do we help these fussy eaters feel safe and happy to try new foods? Below are my top 5 tips to work with at mealtimes:
- Reduce the amount of stress at dinner time. Turn mealtimes into a fun playful experience used games and fun activities to help intrinsically motivate them to stay at the table to eat
- Always have something your child can manage to eat and something they can try. That way they never feel completely defeated.
- It’s ok if they didn’t eat the new food the first or 9th time. As long as they are having a positive experience with the food and learning and exploring it that is a win at the table.
- Get external support. If your fussy eater continues to reduce the amounts of foods they will eat, seek support from a feeding therapist to support their learning, there might be something else going on.
- New foods are sometimes best tried outside of mealtimes or away from dinner times. Away from meals helps to reduce the stress that ‘I have to eat it’ and dinner times are usually the times when young children are the most tired so it’s like fighting an uphill battle. Who says we can’t have carrots for breakfast?
Laura is the CEO and Founder of Theratrak. She is also a passionate paediatric occupational therapist, helping families and working with children living with range of disabilities.
Laura has worked in the private health sector for over 5 years, and in this time has noticed a distinct lack of innovative technology solutions targeting the ongoing care of clients outside of direct therapy and how this is impacting the client’s overall treatment.
Theratrak is a mobile app that allows therapists to capture and digitise meaningful information in therapy sessions then use this data to prescribe, monitor and send therapy home programs to their clients.