When we think about toddlers and pre-schoolers refusing certain foods, we generally think about them not eating them because they don’t like the taste. While this is undoubtedly true, particularly for bitter tasting foods, it isn’t the only reason. Sometimes children may not like the smell of a certain food, or they may not like how something looks, how something feels though is often a stumbling block at this age. It is not uncommon for young children to refuse foods that are wet, or slimy in some way.
My firstborn refused any food in a sauce as soon as he hit toddlerhood, eschewing wet food for the accompanying dry breadsticks, crackers and toast at all opportunities. To this day, only one out of four of my children will eat mushrooms, not because of the taste of them, but the texture. Apparently, they are “all squidgy” and make their teeth feel funny. I initially thought this was a strange quirk of my family until I realised how many others, not just children but adults too, shared their mushroom disdain. Research into the eating habits of toddlers and pre-schoolers has found that the texture of food affects picky eating significantly more than colour or taste. Further research has found a strong link between the sensory processing characteristics of children and the food that they eat, or rather don’t eat. For those children who do not have specific Sensory Processing Disorder, I wonder if this shunning of wet, slimy and squelchy foods in favour of their ‘safe’ dry counterparts is because of the way we speak about different textures as adults.
The very words slimy and squelchy conjure images of smelly green goo, snail trails, dirty mud and so on. They are words used to describe monsters and aliens and other unpleasant creatures. We often warn our children not to touch something because it is ‘yucky’, when in fact we are referring to slimy, sticky, gooey textures. Many parents can unconsciously pass on a fear of dirt to their children by constantly wiping their faces, or hands, whether it is to clean them of snot, ketchup, chocolate or mud. Our dislike of certain textures and the dirtiness and negativity associated with them must surely rub off on our children. Is this perhaps why so many avoid similar textures when it comes to eating?
How to Help?
For children who struggle with the sensory aspects of eating, especially foods that are slimy, mushy and gooey, incorporating more messy play into their days, focussing on the sensations that they struggle with, can have a positive effect on their food acceptance. Research has shown that sensory play with real fruits and vegetables can have a positive impact on the fruit and vegetable consumption of children. The experiment, conducted with three and four year olds, found that children who played with fruit and vegetables in a messy play session tried significantly more fruit and vegetables than children in the experiment who had not played with any. This finding did not only prove true for the specific fruit and vegetables that they had played with in the messy play session, but also those that they hadn’t.
For children who struggle with getting messy, and often avoid ‘messy foods’ as a result, parents should also focus on their own actions. Parents who are overly clean can unconsciously pass on a fear of ‘mess’ to their children. If you make a dash for the baby wipes as soon as your toddler puts their hands in their food, or manages to get as much of what they are eating on their face as in their mouth, then there is a chance that you are causing your child to become anxious about making a mess with food. In turn, this may cause picky eating, especially surrounding food with messier textures. If you can identify yourself in this, try to find a way to keep the baby wipes in the packet and postpone the handwashing. When you do clean up your child, be careful to not use words like messy, or mucky, instead you could say something like “wow, you look like you enjoyed that!”.
For more on coping with tricky eating in childhood, from birth to 18yrs, and how to raise a child with a healthy relationship with food – and their body – check out my Gentle Eating Book in the UK and rest of the world.