Sensory food play is a simple but effective solution to help picky eaters add new foods to their diets. These sensory food play ideas for picky eaters allow children to interact with food in a low-pressure way, which increases a picky eater’s willingness to try new foods.
The key to successful sensory food play for picky eaters is to focus on exploring and having fun – not eating. The best sensory food play ideas create opportunities for active learning and fun hands-on experiences with new food.
To best help your extreme picky eater expand their diet using food play, aim to build their curiosity about and interest in new foods when they play. The more comfortable they feel with new foods and the more positive exposures they have, the more likely they are to want to eat. When kids know that they are not expected to eat, they are more likely to relax and have fun with new foods. This is key to building their motivation to try new foods.
Take advantage of colorful spring-time produce with these five fun spring sensory food play ideas to help picky eaters.
5 Spring Sensory Food Play Ideas to Help Picky Eaters
Pea Pod Designs
- How-to: Invite your child to help deshell fresh peas. You can have fun squeezing the peas out of their green pods. Then, use the pods to create designs and creatures like houses, butterflies, robots, flowers, letters, or anything else that your child thinks of.
- Bonus: use the deshelled peas and shells to play tic tac toe or see who can flick the pea the farthest across the table. You can invite your picky eater to help you cook the peas and even choose a recipe together. I love green pea guacamole!
- Need: Handful of spring peas in their pods (snow pea and sugar snap work too), placemat or surface to work on
- Benefits for picky eaters: Your child gets a double food exposure in this fun activity. Deshelling is a great way to build fine motor skills and designing can build comfort and confidence with peas, which can lead to tasting.
- How-to: Cut radishes into ~1 inch coins, and invite your child to use them to build towers and castles. You can play a game to see who can build the highest tower before it topples over. If your child has a preferred dip like mustard or hummus, you can use it as a “glue” to help secure the tower.
- Bonus: If your child seems ready to bring the radishes to their mouth (remember, this can take multiple exposures!) suggest having a crunch contest. See who can make the loudest crunch, silliest crunch, quietest crunch etc, with the radish. Allow your child to spit out the radish pieces they crunch, with no pressure to actually eat them.
- Need: Radishes, knife or mandolin, preferred dip optional
- Benefits for picky eaters: Stacking and building with vegetables is fun for all ages and working on a challenging activity can engage even the pickiest of eaters.
- How-to: Cut fennel in half. Pour dips or water-based paint into a saucer and dab the fennel cut side down into the paint. Press the fennel onto a placemat or piece of paper to create designs.
- Need: 1 fennel; knife; water-based paints or food dips such as ketchup, yogurt, mustard; paper or plain placemat
- Benefits for picky eaters:Making a stamp from a food is a fun activity that can get kids touching foods they are otherwise inclined to avoid. Using dips as paint creates an extra opportunity for positive interactions with food. You can model licking off any dip that gets on your hands. Your child might follow your lead.
Indoor Garden with Lettuce
- How-to: Chop the upper leaves off romaine lettuce, leaving the bulb (bottom 3 inches) intact. Place a few inches of water in a bowl or cup and place the lettuce bulb in the bowl, making sure that the water is covering only about ⅓ of the lettuce. You can use toothpicks to prop the lettuce straight. Place the bowl near a sunny window and wait. After a few days in the water, the lettuce should start to grow. You can encourage your child to take photos or keep a journal tracking its growth. After about two weeks, you can decide if you want to plant in dirt or give your lettuce a taste!
- Need: romaine lettuce “bulbs”, knife, water, shallow bowl or cups, toothpicks
- Benefits for picky eaters: Growing from food scraps is a fun, no-pressure introduction to gardening and an exciting science experiment. Like cooking, gardening has been shown to increase a child’s willingness to try new foods.
Strawberry Chia Jam
- How-to: Heat strawberries in a small saucepan over medium heat. As the fruit begins to bubble, use a spoon or potato masher to mash strawberries to desired consistency. Alternatively, smash berries in a ziplock or bowl beforehand. Stir in the chia seeds and lemon juice until combined and sticky for ~ 5 minutes total. Taste and add sweetener if needed. Take off heat and cool before eating. Do taste tests with preferred foods such as toast, pancakes, oatmeal, and yogurt. You can also experiment using other seasonal or frozen fruits.
- Need: 2 cups of fresh or frozen strawberries, potato masher/large spoon, 1 T lemon juice, 2 T chia seeds, optional honey or other sweetener to taste
- Benefits for picky eaters: This is a simple recipe that invites your child’s participation. Kids who cook are kids who taste, so it’s always a good idea to invite your child into the kitchen. Their involvement can be the factor that motivates them to finally taste something new. Be sure to sample the chia seed jam alongside your child. Observing you or other family members eat the jam can be another factor that inspires your child to taste.
Fun sensory food play ideas can help picky eaters feel more comfortable trying new foods. These sensory food play activities are easy to do alongside your child. When playing with food, focus on exploring and having fun. Avoid pressuring (or even expecting) your child to taste if they’re not ready yet. Tasting will eventually come when children feel comfortable and confident with new foods.
To help your picky eater learn to eat new foods, aim to complete one fun sensory food activity weekly. You can ask your child which activity they’d like to try.