Have you noticed that your kiddo gravitates toward crackers, veggie straws, and all foods crunchy? Why does he love these crunchy foods, and how can we use his preference for crunch to improve his eating over time?
Judy here – I want to share a bit of my feeding therapy world with you.
Consider the crunch and texture of foods like croutons and cereal. What about this texture makes it irresistible?
Crunchy foods – oftentimes pre-packaged foods like crackers, veggie straws, puffed snacks, cereal, pretzels – are predictable in taste and consistency. Every. Single. Bite. You know what you’re going to get when you open the package. It always has the same flavor, smell, consistency and look.
Think about how different this is for veggies and fruit. A blueberry can be sweet, sour, firm or squishy. It can taste delicious or can be very off-putting if it’s overripe. Kids don’t always know how to spot a “bad” piece of fruit before they eat it and can have a really negative experience that might turn them off to it for the long run. A cracker is much more predictable and “safe” in their eyes.
Furthermore, your toddler may find that crunch gives them the jaw resistance that teaches their mouths where the food is located. They learn that when they feel this crunch, it feels good inside their mouth, and because of this they learn to seek out crunchy foods more often. Not only does it teach their mouth where the food is located and awareness of what is happening between their teeth (or gums), but it also may feel great to a teething toddler.
As your baby and toddler experiences this jaw resistance that they practice in early chewing and biting, they seek to repeat this feeling because it gives them positive sensory feedback. Whenever our sensory system experiences positive feedback, something our body enjoys, we want to repeat it! Over time, young children develop a sensory preference for this crunchy texture.
Think about the other types of sensory feedback your child receives when they hear the sound of their teeth crunching a veggie straw. Their proprioceptive system is also hard at work – this system is the “GPS” of their body, the “positional sense” that allows them to know where their body parts are located as they move and how much pressure or force their body needs to use to perform different tasks. Well, the proprioceptive sense is receiving input from the up and down movement of their mouth and the pressure needed to chew the crunchy food. Their sense of taste also notices the saltiness and palatability that many crunchy foods have. Want to learn more about sensory processing? Check out this interesting article!
Biting, gnawing and hard chewing with resistance are a preferred exercise for babies. Not only does it help soothe teething spots, but it also gives them great sensory input through their gums. It is normal for your baby and young child to prefer things with crunch because it feels good!
To think of it another way, consider the foods you choose when you are craving something. Do you crave sweet? Salty? Crunchy? Smooth? Now, ask yourself this: “Why did I choose this food, and does it satisfy something sensory for me?” Does it help you self-regulate? Does it calm you, or wake you up?
Many of us use chewing gum or chewy/crunchy food to help ourselves focus or manage stress. Your sensory system guides your food choices more than you may realize.
Habits in our mouths start early in life, and we learn to choose these specific foods for the same reason your child prefers them, too.
Not surprisingly, as an OT specializing in feeding I get this question often: “My child loves only crunchy foods. How do I progress them off crunchy foods?”
This is a little question with a big answer.
If your child seems to prefer crunchy, follow the tips below, based on their age.
Babies 6 – 9 months:
- Introduce a variety of colors, tastes, flavors, and essentially ”eat a rainbow” every day. Need help with this? Please check out our Infant Course.
- Use dips with crunchy foods to introduce different textures. Try blueberry or raspberries blended with cream cheese or other soft cheese, hummus and guacamole, tzatziki, bean dip, and other savory spreads to add flavor, nutrients, and textures to a favorite crunch. Try to serve dips whenever you do crunchy foods.
- Model eating different foods with your kids. If you want them to eat greens, then eat greens (and blues and oranges) with them too.
- If you have an older toddler or child, consider them the secret weapon in creating great new habits for the younger eater. Make it fun – create “lava” with red pepper hummus (you can squeeze it out of a Ziploc bag cut at the end) and play with it! Drive toy cars or cucumber “boats” through dip “rivers” and land the boats with a crash in their mouths. The secret to expanding a child’s food tolerance is exposure and play. We talk all about this in our Toddler & Kid Course!
Older babies and toddlers/children (10+ months):
- If your toddler has the skills to identify colors and shapes, use that to your advantage and make shish kebob’s out of different food shapes with fresh fruit and fresh veggies. Make it a production and play with the sound of the crunch! Then put your fingers into your child’s ears and have then crunch something and see how LOUD their crunch can be using the stuffed ears technique. Remember, play is key! Don’t be afraid to get messy and have fun with it!
- Try unconventional crunchy foods, like those listed in the image above! Baked cheese, crunchy broccoli, freeze dried fruit and pea snacks are a fun way to eat veggies and fruits!
- If your child is not interested in soups or smoothies, I have found the following technique to be a huge success in feeding sessions. Start with three Dixie cups (or mini espresso cups) and cut straws in half. You are going to be the taster of the soup or smoothies – decide which soup/smoothie is the best, using only small tastes of each. Ask about the color of the soup/smoothie and play food detective. Perhaps they want to try the soup or smoothie too – maybe even with the straw or by drinking from the cup! If your child is slightly older, I have had clients actually blend the smoothie for another adult, and the adult has to pretend to pay for the tastes (a la lemonade stand). Ask your toddler or child if they want to try the smoothie or soup to make sure it’s made to perfection. Remember, don’t ever force your kiddo to try something – it’s all about him having fun, becoming comfortable with that food, and making the choice on his own to try something new.
- Try a spiralizer! We love the Inspiralizer! This turns veggies and fruits into noodles. Try it with apples (I like the Granny Smiths the best for this). Kids especially like cold cucumbers or even jicama! Remember, kids love being involved in the kitchen with touching and smelling foods, as well as adding ingredients to recipes or choosing which foods to work with next.
As always, try to not make a big deal out of what your child is or isn’t eating. Instead, have fun with food, cook and shop together, and enjoy the art of play in all aspects of parenting as best you can.
Still need help? Our Toddler & Kid Course lays out a specific step-by-step plan for reversing or preventing picky eating utilizing feeding therapy and nutrition therapy strategies. Let us help your family make mealtime fun again!