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Sensory-based food education

Harness the magic of sensory-based food education

“Eat your veggies – they’re good for you!” Even if it gets a few bites of broccoli eaten in the moment, this tactic doesn’t usually inspire a lasting love of healthy food. In fact, it usually backfires; making children less likely to eat that broccoli when they see it again in the future.

So how do you cultivate a happy, healthy relationship between children and food?

Sensory-based food education is a proven approach that’s easy to incorporate into any program or setting. This article explains what it is and shares simple tips for putting it into practice. I’ll share the key ingredients for bringing it to life and explain how it can help you nurture children who are much more than just veggie lovers: it can inspire them to become lifelong ambassadors for a healthy and sustainable future.

What is sensory-based food education?

Sensory-based food education is an approach that gives children opportunities to use all their senses to explore and experience food. It harnesses their natural curiosity and their way of learning about the world around them, by looking, smelling, touching, listening and tasting. It uses real food and a wide variety of learning activities and experiences, such as music, games, language, art and creative play. It’s an open-ended, joyful approach that encourages children to take an active role in their own learning.

Why is food education important?

Eating behaviours and food preferences that develop at a young age can last throughout childhood and into the adult years. Food education in early childhood is an opportunity to lay the foundation for lifelong eating habits that build healthy bodies and prevent the development of diet-related diseases.

Food connects everything. Food education can also be the spark that inspires children to discover the connections between food and all the elements of their world. By learning where food comes from, how it’s grown, produced, prepared and even marketed, children develop valuable life skills, competence in feeding themselves, and the ability to navigate the complex world of food around them. They’ll grow up to become conscious consumers and mindful eaters; aware of the impact of the choices they make. Food education inspires and equips children to support their own health and the health of our precious planet.

The key ingredients in sensory-based food education

Exposure, exposure, exposure

The one thing that makes any child more likely to eat and accept a new food is simply repeated exposure! It can take anywhere from 10-15 exposures or even more for some children to feel comfortable and possibly take a nibble. That’s ok. Think of each food experience as a chance to add to those exposures, and don’t worry about whether children actually eat any of the food they’re exploring (although most of them probably will!) Feeling and smelling leafy green tops, scrubbing carrots in a tub of water and discovering all the shapes made when they’re cut in different ways are all unique exposures to this veggie- rich with opportunities for children to use their senses. Those experiences add up and they’ll help make carrots familiar when they show up on the plate at the next meal or snack time.  

Sprinkle generously with fun, but skip the pressure

When adults relax around food, children will too. We’ve seen it happen in every one of our programs. Step back and allow the children’s curiosity to lead the process. Nudging a child to “just take a bite” or “try it like Oscar did” can cause them to pull back and resist tasting that food. Even though it’s well-meaning, subtle pressure usually backfires. Keep things playful and positive and reinforce food explorer behaviours with comments like “You’re doing a great job smelling the cucumber!” or “I love the way you’re using your fingers to feel the outside of the kiwi!”

It doesn’t matter if they like it

It’s a natural reaction, but when a child does take a bite or taste a new food, don’t ask them if they like it. Once established, those “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” ratings are hard to change, and they can last a long time in a child’s mind. Instead of asking if they like what they ate, encourage children to use descriptive language to reflect and share their sensory discoveries. What do you notice about the tomato? Is it tangy? Juicy? Slurpy? What do you see inside? How does the outside of the red pepper feel? What sound does the carrot make when you bite it?  Besides steering away from sorting foods into the “yuck” or “yum” camps, this is a great way to help children build a rich descriptive vocabulary.

Marvel at the magic

You don’t need a big budget or fancy equipment to bring this approach to life. The magic lies in discovering the amazing sensory properties and features of the food itself. Start with a whole fruit or vegetable and invite children to get up close and explore. Look for colors, patterns, shapes, smells and textures. Have you ever noticed the way the seeds are arranged on the outside of a strawberry? Can you feel the pattern on the cantaloupe skin with your fingertips? How are the stalks arranged in a bunch of celery? What does a grapefruit smell like?

Taking fruits and vegetables apart and cutting them open reveals surprises and inner beauty, if we stop to notice it. The pattern inside a purple cabbage is truly breathtaking. It always draws gasps from children (and adults!) when we reveal it. Invite children to look for all the different features they can find and explore inside fruits and vegetables. How many leaves does a persimmon have? What shape does a pepper make if you cut it horizontally? Can you find the star inside an apple? What pattern can you see in a cabbage leaf if you hold it up to the light?

Cultivate connections

Sensory-based food experiences can spark conversations that connect to every area of your program, linking food to virtually any topic. An experience with pineapples might lead to a discussion of how and where they grow and the climate in different parts of the world. It could easily also lead to a conversation about how some food is transported across long distances, and the different impact of eating imported or locally grown produce.  

A simple sensory exploration of oranges could easily become a numeracy exercise. Cutting an orange in half crosswise to reveal the sections could lead to exploration of shapes, patterns, counting and even fractions. On another day, children might be interested in squeezing oranges, leading to a discussion about juice, and possibly a mindfulness exercise, comparing how full we feel after eating orange pieces and drinking orange juice. Older children could even explore the differences between orange juice and orange soda and begin conversations about food processing and marketing.