Sensory food play is a fun and effective way to help picky eaters eat more fruits and vegetables.
Serving a picky eater new foods is an important way to help them learn to eat new foods. But simply offering new foods and providing new food exposures often is not enough to help a child eat new foods like fruits and vegetables.
Sensory food play is so effective because it can reduce a child’s anxiety around new foods, can give them positive experiences with food, and can reduce sensory aversions.
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 without any pressure or expectation of eating. 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 fresh summer foods and warm weather with these five fun sensory food play ideas to help picky eaters eat more fruits and vegetables.
5 Summer Sensory Food Play Ideas to Help Picky Eaters
- How to: Cut thin slices of watermelon. Invite your child to cut shapes from the slices using different shaped cookie cutters. Offer popsicle sticks, skewers, and toothpicks. Kids can use the sticks to create watermelon sculptures. Challenge your child to touch, lick or bite their watermelon structure without making it topple over!
- What you need: 1 watermelon; small cookie cutters in a variety of shapes; toothpicks, craft or popsicle sticks or skewers; a large tray or small bowls to separate out the different shapes (a chip and salsa tray would work perfectly); and a placemat for building.
- Benefits for picky eaters: Cutting out shapes and building encourages fine motor skills. Touching the cold and wet watermelon encourages sensory stimulation.
- How to: Shuck ears of corn. Cut or break them in half horizontally so you have 2 mini cobs. Pour a layer of dip like ketchup on a plate. Show your child how to roll the corn in the dip and then use it as a rolling stamp on a piece of paper to create designs. Use the flat end of the corn to create a flower pattern or use the tip of the corn as a pen and draw letters.
- Need: 1-2 ears of corn, dip of choice, paper, plastic tray
- Benefits for picky eaters: Creating corn art with dips encourages kids to get messy and touch foods they may be otherwise hesitant to do. Demonstrate how you can lick your fingers when they get dirty.
Ice Cream Sundae Truck
- How to: Set ice cream, ice cream scoops, and sundae toppings. Your child can run the ice cream truck. Family and friends can “order” their ice cream from your child, who can scoop and add everyone’s requested toppings. Your child can make their own order, too.
- Need: ice cream; ice cream scoop; sundae toppings such as banana slices, sprinkles, and whipped cream in individual bowls; ice cream bowls or cones
- Benefits for picky eaters: Taking on the role of “server” can increase a child’s feelings of competence and confidence and can help them feel empowered with new foods. Try this activity with any customizable meal like chili, sandwiches, tacos, or pasta.
Mystery Bag of Fruits and Veggies
- How to: Place 4 different fruit and/or vegetables (peach, Brussels sprouts, kiwi, citrus, apples, eggplant, and avocado work well) in an opaque bag. Have your child close their eyes and reach in the bag, trying to identify each fruit by its sensory characteristics. Is it fuzzy? Is it round? Is it hard or soft? Once they identify all four make predictions about the inside of the fruit – what color is it? What will it feel like? Cut the fruit open to explore. Your child can smell or lick the inside of the fruit and compare to the outside. How are they the same? Different?
- Need: 4 different fruits and/or vegetables, opaque bag large enough to fit the food, cutting board, knife.
- Benefits for picky eaters: This activity encourages children to get in touch with how fruits look and feel. It can take them out of the mindset where everything is “gross” to a place where they can objectively describe foods and understand how they look and feel. This gives them more information about what a food might taste and feel like in their mouth. This activity also teaches children that how a fruit or vegetable looks, feels and smells on the outside isn’t the same as how it looks, feels, and smells on the inside.
Homemade Berry Popsicles
- How to: Plan a day to head to the grocery store with your child. Invite them to select a juice and a fresh or frozen berry. Together, at home, blend 2 cups of juice with 1 cup of berries in a food processor or blender and pour into popsicle molds. Have your child put the popsicle sticks into each one. Place in the freezer. When they are frozen, take them outside to un-mold and explore. Notice the temperature and texture. Are they melting? If your child is ready, have a licking contest. How many licks can they take in 10 seconds? How many licks does it take to eat the whole popsicle? Do your tongue or fingers turn colors from touching or licking the popsicle?
- Need: Popsicle mold, juice, berries
- Benefits for picky eaters: This activity is a fun way to get your child into the kitchen. Kids who cook are kids who eat. In addition to learning about frozen foods, this activity allows your child to engage with fruit in a more approachable and appealing way. If they like the popsicle activity you can experiment with other flavors and varieties such as smoothie popsicles.
Looking for more sensory food play ideas for your picky eater? Check out:
- 5 Fun Fall Food Activities for Picky Eaters
- 5 Fun Winter Food Activities for Picky Eaters
- 5 Fun Spring Sensory Food Play Ideas
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 play activity weekly. You can ask your child which activity they’d like to try.