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Why Do Food Textures Matter?

Food comes in all shapes and sizes. It comes in different colors and textures as well. Most people may not think about these properties when eating, but for a child with sensory sensitivity, food textures do matter!  

Why is texture important for children’s food?  

As a child’s oral motor skills develop, they progress through different stages of food texture. 

The earliest textures a child would be exposed to are liquids and purees from birth to 7 months: 

  • Breastmilk 
  • Pureed food and cereal 

They then move through stages of meltable foods from 8-9 months. These are foods that dissolve in your mouth: 

  • Puffs, cereals, yogurt melts, etc. 
  • Popsicles 

Around 10-15 months they move to soft mechanical foods: 

  • Muffins  
  • Pastas
  • Mixed textures (spaghetti and meatballs, macaroni and cheese) 

At 15-18 months, they can accept hard mechanical foods which do not melt easily and require refined chewing. Adjust cutting the food to an appropriate size your child can manage. For example: 

  • Chicken breast 
  • Hard chips and cookies 
  • Pretzel rods 

Moving a child through these various stages or giving a child food they are not ready for texture-wise can lead to difficulty chewing and swallowing and put them at higher risk for choking. This will also lead the child to have negative experiences with food and be fearful to try that same texture food again.   

Impact of different food textures on senses

Another way to classify foods based on textures is by describing how they feel, for instance, smooth, creamy, crispy, chunky, etc. From milk and pureed food to harder baby food, different food textures introduced throughout early childhood have an impact on the senses. All of our senses are involved in eating and our tactile system is the one that processes and discriminates the feeling of textures on our hands and in our mouths. When this system works properly, it allows us to comfortably explore our environment. If children are hypersensitive to tactile input, they will be less willing to get messy, can be particular about clothing, and could be picky eaters with a strong preference for food of a specific texture only. It is important to expose children to various textures at a young age. This will help the child feel safe when it comes to food. When a child is a picky eater because of texture, it is difficult to introduce new foods in order to expand the child’s diet. This is because it is harder for sensory-sensitive kids to adjust to the big change of adding different textures into their diet. Food texture plays a major role in whether or not the child is willing to eat.

How does texture affect food? 

Texture affects food in many ways. First, food texture dictates the oral motor skills we need to manage it, such as biting down to break off a piece or sucking liquid off a spoon or out of a bottle. Is the food easy to pick up and eat with our hands, or do we need to use refined fine motor coordination to scoop with a spoon and pierce food with a fork? Children that have decreased oral motor strength may have more difficulty with crunchy or ‘tough’ foods that require more chewing. This could impact their food choices and cause them to avoid foods that are hard to chew and manage. 

Second, depending on how long we have to chew it, the way it breaks down in our mouth, and the amount of saliva that mixes with the food molecules all affect the taste of the food.  

Third, texture affects the visual presentation of food. If the food is brown and lumpy, this may look less appealing than food that is smooth and flat. Also, food that has a slimy covering is likely to deter someone that has a sensitivity to wet textures. Let’s think about an egg, for example. It is naturally a liquid with a yellow blob in the middle. When it is scrambled, it becomes spongy, yellow, and is chopped into pieces. Hardboiled, on the other hand, is white, can be slimy, and can be eaten with or without the yellow inside. When it is hardboiled it also has a very strong smell. The combination of the above characteristics is likely to impact food likes and dislikes for children and adults.  

Think about the variety of textures you eat throughout the day. In the morning you may have oatmeal, which is creamy. Then for an afternoon snack, you may have a granola bar which is crunchy. Although both of those foods are oat-based, the taste and feeling in your mouth are very different; the way a food is prepared determines its texture. The texture is directly related to the way food feels on our hands and in our mouth, the way it tastes, and the way it smells, which will impact a person’s food preferences.   

Food texture and sensory diet

Food texture and taste can also be used as part of a child’s sensory diet. Some children seek oral input and may frequently be observed chewing or sucking on non-food items. Providing them with the right type of snacks and meals can aid in their regulation.  

Alerting foods will provide more input and can include: 

  • Cold foods – popsicles, frozen berries, ice cream 
  • Chewy foods – dried fruit, gummies, granola bars, bagels 
  • Strong flavored food (sour and spicy) – sour candy, lemon slices, salsa, pickles 
  • Crunchy food – chips, pretzels, popcorn, apples, carrots 
  • Fizzy drinks 

Calming foods will provide more comfort and help relax the child: 

  • Sweet foods – bananas, peaches, cantaloupe 
  • Creamy foods – yogurt, peanut butter, hummus, pudding 
  • Warm foods – soup, tea 
  • Mint flavored gum 

What is food texture aversion?  

Food aversion is when a person significantly limits the types of foods they eat, which in turn limits their diet. It is often due to sensory processing challenges caused by the food’s texture, taste, temperature, or smell. A child that is over-responsive to sensory input may favor smooth, soft, calming foods compared to a child that is under-responsive and may favor alerting, crunchy, flavorful foods.  Food texture aversion is also commonly seen in children with Autism. Red flags of food texture aversion include: 

  • Gagging at the sight or taste of food 
  • Whole body reaction after touching the food, for example: putting hands up, a shiver throughout their body, becoming upset 
  • Immediately wiping face and hands after food touches them 
  • Unwillingness to try certain foods 
  • Becoming upset and spitting food out 
  • Facial grimacing when trying new foods 

If you notice the above happening when your child is eating or when you introduce new foods, an occupational therapy evaluation may be warranted. Ignoring this aversion in children will lead to continued challenges with mealtimes and problems eating throughout their life.  

How Feeding Therapy can help 

Whether a child has developed picky eating habits or has excluded specific textured food from the diet, feeding therapy may be beneficial. Feeding therapy with a skilled occupational therapist allows a child to increase tolerance to new foods in a safe environment. Individualized therapy is important because there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to sensory diets and food diets. The root cause of a child’s food sensitivities is likely different for each child as well.  The earlier the child starts therapy, the better to build positive experiences with food.   

If texture plays a role in the child’s food sensitivities, an occupational therapist can provide sensory regulating activities in therapy and give suggestions for at home. Home carryover is extremely important, as this is often what leads to the most progress. For instance, an occupational therapist can provide guidance on creating a sensory diet, how to make a sensory bin for at-home use, and ways to incorporate sensory experiences throughout the child’s day. This may look like playing in a noodle bin, followed by heavy work around the house. Or engagement in art projects with finger paint, shaving cream, and lotion.  

Creating progress

After an assessment, the therapist will work with the family on chaining foods, taking into consideration the child’s texture preferences and oral motor skill set. For example, trying a variety of white foods such as bananas, white bread, white potatoes, mozzarella cheese stick, etc. Another strategy could be to stick to one food and gradually change its properties. So, making suggestions to the family such as changing the seasoning used, sauce it is cooked in, or the temperature that it’s served. This allows for slow exposure to “new” foods that won’t overwhelm the child’s sensory system. Through desensitization programs led by the occupational therapist, children will become more tolerant of a variety of textures, which will lead to a greater willingness to try a variety of foods without having large reactions.  

Occupational therapists can also recognize oral motor concerns that are impeding the successful management of the food and make a referral to a speech therapist if needed. Often times the occupational therapist and speech therapist will work together as a team to lay the foundation for successful mealtimes and healthy eating habits.  Find a clinic near you and get in touch with us today! 

Article By: Courtney Besso, MS, OTR/L 

Courtney began her occupational therapy career three and a half years ago. Courtney loves working with the pediatric population and believes in the importance of providing quality, family-centered care. She specializes in sensory regulation, feeding, and fine motor delays. Courtney enjoys working with children of all ages to reach their full potential. She treats patients at Ivy Rehab for Kids in North Wales, PA. 

The medical information contained herein is provided as an information resource only, and does not substitute professional medical advice or consultation with healthcare professionals. This information is not intended to be patient education, does not create any patient-provider relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or medical advice. Please consult with your healthcare provider before making any healthcare decisions or for guidance about a specific medical condition. If you think you have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. IvyRehab Network, Inc. disclaims any and all responsibility, and shall have no liability, for any damages, loss, injury or liability whatsoever suffered as a result of your reliance on the information contained herein.

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