By Karen Kaplan, MS
If you are a parent, teacher, speech therapist, an individual on the spectrum, or a person with sensory sensitivity or a learning disability, you know people interact with cooking and eating differently.
Here are some of the differences you are probably aware of:
Displeasure with food textures
Only like particular tastes or smells of food
Prefers very specific colors of foods
Has chewing and/or swallowing problems
Has a hard time sitting through a family meal
Does not want to try new foods
Refuses to touch certain foods or specific eating or cooking utensils
Has stomach-related problems (diarrhea, constipation, or acid reflux)
You may have heard some of the advice below to address these differences. All of us need to work on eating healthily so we can sleep well and have enough energy to live our day, learn, problem-solve well, and, most of all, handle stressors that occur.
Perhaps you have been advised to try:
Introducing new food to decrease mealtime anxiety and build familiarity. Touch it, smell it, cut it, give it to the dog or cat or a brother or sister.
Using cookie cutters to cut sandwiches into fun shapes, make faces on a pizza with veggies, or engage them in finger painting with pasta sauce.
Mixing in favorite foods with less preferred ones.
Implementing a relaxation period before dinner? Create a calm transition from a busy day to the meal table. Maybe you have even dimmed the lights and played soft music in the background.
Developing a mealtime schedule to offer routine and to prime your individual for the next meal of the day.
Slowly adding new foods to keep the anxiety down.
Placing new food strategically. Your child may feel more comfortable if it is in a separate dish rather than directly on their plate.
Different brands of white bread. Perhaps you have tried to overcome this picky eating issue by introducing new brands of white bread, even if you must do it in baby steps. Maybe you began by purchasing two brands and have them both on the counter or table – one they are used to and a new brand. Over time, you can introduce the new brand and then try others.
Not to give up, not push too fast, and to keep trying.
Research what their favorite heroes, artists, musicians, and athletes like to eat. Use this information to motivate you or include it in the story you tell.
Cooking together. This is a no-pressure time that allows kids to explore new foods. They will often feel brave enough to try something new in the fun and relaxed nature of the moment.
Think about this. It is very common for kids with oral aversions to strongly prefer a specific type of texture. Use that to your advantage! For instance, serve a small cube of cheese instead of a slice of cheese. Or, if a child prefers crunchy food, serve meats and veggies that have a crunchy texture.
Occupational Therapists often advise using a vibrating toothbrush a couple of times a day. When brushing teeth, encourage your child to allow you to help, and brush the sides of the tongue, top of the tongue, and inside the cheeks as well.
I say, “How about just adding some fun?” This week, I saw a mom post on Facebook, a waffle maker that makes waffles in the shape of vehicles. Wow. That could be motivating, I thought. I then saw that they have waffle makers that make waffles in the shape of animals and dinosaurs. Amazon.com: Car & Trucks Waffle Maker - Make 7 Different Race Cars, Trucks & Automobile Vehicle Shaped Pancakes - Electric Non-Stick Pan Cake Waffler Iron, Fun Breakfast Treat for Kids or Birthday Gift for Him: Home & Kitchen
How about purchasing a toaster that has the Batman logo on it? You can on Amazon. Amazon.com: DC Batman 2-Slice Toaster: Home & Kitchen
What about using a coffee maker with Spiderman emblems all over it? Those, too, can be found on Amazon. You can purchase glasses with different superheroes on them to encourage water intake. There are also thermoses with cartoon characters and animals and fantastic shapes and colors that could work to motivate more liquid intake. Amazon.com: Uncanny Brands Spider-Man Single Cup Coffee Maker with Mug- Cup A Joe with Spidey: Home & Kitchen
Have you seen the variety of chef hats and chef aprons adorned with an individual’s favorite color or figures? That could motivate your individual to wear them, and then they could be motivated to cook or eat. Amazon.com: Lesheng space Chef Costume for Kids Chef Role Play Costume Dress-Up Set With cooking tools, Pretend Chef Outfit for Toddlers, Age 3+: Toys & Games
I have seen cooking utensils in various colors and with all kinds of fun sayings, objects, and people and animals on them. Maybe your individual might stir when a spatula has a fun emblem on it that makes them happy. Amazon.com: Kids Kitchen Toy Accessories, Toddler Pretend Cooking Playset with Stainless Steel Play Pots and Pans, Kids Play Kitchen Accessories, Play Food Set, Toy Vegetables, Learning Gift for Girls Boys: Toys & Games
You could create play for younger children. Amazon sells all kinds of kitchen play equipment and furniture. Perhaps if they learn early to play with cooking items, open and close a play oven, see and touch plastic fruit, and cut with safe tools, they might be better primed to engage in the actual task of cooking and eating. Amazon.com: Hape Gourmet Kitchen Toy Fully Equipped Wooden Pretend Play Kitchen Set with Sink, Stove, Baking Oven, Cabinet, Turnable Knobs & Spice Shelf, White: Toys & Games. If kids play tea party, soda fountain party, or pizza party early, perhaps it can open the door to them approaching the actual tasks with less stress.
Cookie Monster from Sesame Street loves all kinds of cookies. His friend Elmo likes them too. Maybe read books about Cookie Monster. Cookies for Elmo: A Little Book about the Big Power of Sharing with Friends! (kindness books for toddlers and kids, social-emotional learning) (Sesame Street Scribbles): Sesame Workshop, Guendelsberger, Erin: 9781728206271: Amazon.com: Books
So, if you have not tried some of the strategies above to reduce eating and cooking sensitivities, try them. Discovering motivations can lead you to find new ways to expand and grow.
Karen Kaplan, MS, is a native San Franciscan. She completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, in speech pathology and audiology. She minored in special education and obtained her speech therapist and special education credentials in California. Karen worked as a speech therapist for schools for 20 years before opening her own residential and education program for students with autism. She worked in credential programs at Sacramento State University as well as UC Davis and spent 20 years directing private schools for those with autism and similar learning challenges.
Karen founded a non-profit, Offerings, which helps cultures globally to understand those with developmental challenges. For seven years, she founded and facilitated an autism lecture series and resource fair in Northern California. Karen still facilitates an annual Autism Awesomeness event. She is currently consulting, helping families, schools, and centers for children, teens, and adults. Karen has authored three books: Reach Me Teach Me: A Public School Program for the Autistic Child; A Handbook for Teachers and Administrators, On the Yellow Brick Road: My Search for Home and Hope for the Child with Autism, and Typewriting to Heaven… and Back: Conversations with My Dad on Death, Afterlife and Living (which is not about autism but about having important conversations with those we love).