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Food Exploration- Building Solid Eating Habits

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What Is Food Exploration?

Food exploration is incorporation of tools, systems and behaviors that can construct a positive environment for increased nutrition intake. 

For most children (and even adults) our pallets will naturally grow with exposure to a variety of foods choices. 

For others, favorite foods can feel a bit more like prisons.  They’re safe alternatives to novelty food choices which may overwhelm or pallet and our emotions. 

For many picky eaters or those with sensory processing concerns, a short list of acceptable foods will leave us malnourished and ultimately burned out on the choice.

Exploring food through taste, touch, smell, sight, and even hearing can offer support of healthy growth in nourishment.

We can learn to explore food in numerous ways including 

  • Food Exposure
  • Food Play
  • Food Chaining

Depending on the severity of food restrictions, we might combine tactics to provide the least traumatic experience for those wanting to explore food behavior. 

We may also combine with cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy

child picking strawberries from kitchen counter
girl eating pizza

Food Exploration For Kids

As a dietitian the first thing I know is that life is not about absolutes. ESPECIALLY when it comes to food.

Our pre-parental selves may have been convinced that our kids were going to be broccoli lovin’ fools who sat down promptly at 6:30 neatly groomed for supper and ready to eat whatever was put onto their plates.

 If you’re anything like me, I’m guessing that years 1.62-3.54 of your child’s life shattered your dreams.

Surprisingly enough, our kids actually come with their very own set of taste buds (who knew).

Another thing we might overlook is kids were built for exploring foods, and they really know what they’re doing!

Sometimes it’s our own silly aspirations laden with the best intentions that often drives food exploration into a corner.  Here are some ways small people explore foods better than large people: 

  • They ditch the fork and explore food with their hands
  • She uses his face in place of utensils to explore. 
  • He decides whether foods are acceptable based on taste, texture, and temperature.  Not because someone told him they were. 
  • They don’t care if its free range, face free, organic, or full of carbs.  He trusts his gut. Literally. 
  • She stops when she is full.  Even if the plate is still full. 
One of the most frequent things I wind up teaching my adult patients is how to eat mindfully
 
How to truly experience food through all of our senses much like a child.  It’s interesting that many times as we grow, we develop a distrust of ourselves with food.  A lot of this is learned as we grow in culture.
 
Lets help the kiddos stay curious by fostering a great environment to explore!
 

Food Exposure Techniques

For some, choosing new foods will not come naturally.  

There may be a long list of aversions based on many factors.  

One powerful technique can be a very slow paced food exposure regimen. 

Strategies for food exposure (peas)

  • Day 1: pea is placed on aplate
  • Day 2: stabs the pea with a fork 
  • Day 3: smells pea
  • Day 4: licks and smells the pea
  • Day 5: puts the pea in mouth 
  • Day 6: Chews and eats the pea 
family gathered at dinner table

What Role Do Senses Play In Trying New Foods

The thing that makes food exposure so tricky- is that we are experiencing food with ALL of our senses.  

Ways We Explore Food Through Senses: 

Sight: Colors associated with foods.  Certain colors may be off-putting for people We also must consider color contrast (foods against each other or foods against the plate).  

The sight associated with how textures look can also cause distrust of the food for onlooker. 

Smell: Unfamiliar odors, or odors associated with a past unpleasant food experience may trigger food aversion. 

Touch: Consider the way the food feels on the hand and tongue.  How does it slide on the fork or on the plate? 

Taste: What are the flavors?  Sweet, spicy, sour, unami? 

Sound: Is there sounds associated with cooking or plating the dish?  What are the sounds in the eating environment like (environment versus school or home). 

In order for a new food to be deemed acceptable, we are often managing ALL of these senses at once! 

family gathered at dinner table
Woman eating with chop sticks

What is Food Play

Sometimes in order to begin to accept a new food- we need to start way before the food goes into our mouth! 

It can be helpful to experiment  with foods in other ways aside from tasting it. 

Activities to Explore Food

  • Place several fruits in bag.  Have child reach in bind-folded to identify features of the fruit and try to determine the food
  • Try molding mashed potatoes into shapes and figures!
  • Cut apples, dip into paint, and create designs
  • Allow children to prep own fruit kabobs. Eat or toss. 
  • Make popsicles from blended fruit puree
  • Create apple or potato stamps:  Cut apple pieces and allow to be dipped in paint to create art pieces on paper. 
  • Build towers with radish disks (see how high you can go!)
  • Scoop out a pumpkin and bake the seeds!
  • Create designs from pea pods, potato sticks, or sliced bell peppers

Tricks for Incorporating New Food Choices

Sometimes the issue is not exploring food choices we as parents may deem less than optimal- It is trying to jump start the drive for picky eaters to explore enough! 

Like all humans, trying new things for kiddos can sometimes be a daunting task! This is especially true when it comes to trying new foods.  Getting familiar with new foods requires delving feet first into a powerful burst of many sensory experiences! 

Making exploration less stressful can include the following: 

  • Recognize you choose the foods you prepare and what goes into the home, but kiddo gets to decide what and how much to eat. The idea for this comes from what is known as the division of responsibility. 
  • Keep a list of foods your little likes! It may be larger than you think. As you expand, jot new acceptable items down to remember to include them at meal time.  
  • Remember- A food doesn’t need to be eaten every time it is served for it to be considered acceptable. 
  • It often takes many exposures to a new food for acceptance.  If they don’t eat it the first time, don’t stress it.  Trust they know what their bodies need in the given moment.  Continue to serve aversion foods at a later date. 
  • Only introduce one new food at a time.  Ensure the new food exposure is a pleasant experience by pairing it with foods you know your child already accepts.  
child using eggs as eyes

Exploring Food As an Adult

We can explore new foods throughout the course of our life. 

As adults, we can benefit from exploring foods by identifying our fear foods and working to incorporate these into our meals and snacks. 

Fear foods may manifest as a result of texture/taste aversions or as a result of clinical conditions such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder. 

By distinguishing the level of fear associated with a food, we can set up a plan to incorporate these into the diet with the least amount of anxiety. 

We can also use food chaining and food exposure as effective means to navigate foods at any stage in life.  

Child eating food with messy face

Shena Jaramillo. Registered Dietitian

Hi I'm Shena. I'm an eating disorders dietitian in Washington state. I hold bachelors degrees nutrition & dietetics, cultural anthropology & psychology. I believe in honoring your hunger, having your cake whenever you want it, and that critically analyzing diet culture can change the world!

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