by Danielle Carter, MS OTR/L
Self-regulation helps us do important things in our day like manage big emotions, stay calm and organized to play, and successfully transition between activities. We can use carefully chosen sensory activities to help kids stay regulated throughout the day and many parents of kids with sensory processing difficulties are well versed in ideas for heavy work activities. Mealtime however, is often overlooked as a routine for improving self-regulation.
Every meal or snack provides such a sensory rich opportunity for learning. Many of us identify some of the following sensory opportunities of mealtime:
- Touch: Playing with a variety of textures and temperatures
- Smell: Encouraging our kids to smell foods helps them gain information about it
- Taste: Experiencing and labeling things like sweet, sour, and bitter
- Listen: Listening to the different sounds and crunch our foods make as we bite, chew, and slurp
- Look: Experiencing and labeling things as lumpy, smooth, soft, hard, crunchy, sticky, and colors
A lesser known sensory opportunity at meal time is proprioception or heavy work (deep pressure to our muscles and joints. Offering foods with certain properties in mind can be a fabulous proprioceptive activity. We know heavy work and proprioception calm most nervous systems, however we may not automatically think about the jaw as a joint. When we eat, we are directly impacting the jaw joint thought our teeth, providing ourselves with heavy work. Therefore, the foods we offer can be a very impactful way to offer our kids additional proprioceptive experience throughout the day.
Crunchy foods and certain flavors (sour and spicy) are generally alerting and chewy foods are generally calming and organizing. As you think about the sensory experiences you are offering throughout the day, think about mealtime as one more very effective tool to help your children self-regulate.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
Chewy (generally calming) foods:
- Beef jerky
- Soft pretzels (freezer section of the grocery store)
- String cheese
- Twizzlers or other chewy candy
- Dried fruits
- Fruit leather
- Granola bars (soft)
Crunchy (generally alerting) foods:
- Rice cakes
Our goal with sensory processing is to create ways to stay organized without a lot of extra work from parents and caregivers. Incorporating sensory strategies into naturally occurring events in our day can help kids stay calm and organized. Meals and snacks are a great time to think about heavy work leading to self-regulation.