Today we have a very special guest on our blog who plays with her (and other people’s) food every day!

I met Naureen Hunani when I was looking for an expert on food play to include in my online class Turn Picky Eating Around. And I was lucky to find her because we both teach the non-diet approach to nutrition and are passionate about helping children develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies.

Naureen is a registered pediatric dietitian and a feeding expert with over a decade of clinical experience. She believes that our early experiences with food impact the food choices we make later in life. And I could not agree more.

Naureen’s video with the step-by-step strategy to use food play to help your child eat more variety is included in the 8th module of Turn Picky Eating Around program. If you are in the program but still have not watched it, it is an absolute must!

I also thought that all of you, whether you are in the program or not, would benefit from meeting a fantastic expert like Naureen, so I decided to interview her about food play and whether and how parents can do it at home.

Naureen, tell us a little bit about your professional experience.

I am a pediatric and family dietitian and I specialize in the area of picky eating and feeding disorders. After facing feeding difficulties with my own children, I decided to complete advance courses on infant child development and feeding disorders.

I have a private practice in Montreal, Canada where I have developed a unique play-based feeding therapy program focusing on sensory exploration and mindfulness. I take a holistic and an eclectic approach to treating feeding disorders and believe that we need to consider the “whole child” when treating feeding disorders. 

What is food play?

Food play is basically exploring food in a playful manner without having any expectations and judgments.

With food play, the focus is not on eating the food but rather exploring it with our senses and connecting to it with our bodies. This is where children get a chance to heal their relationship with food and push boundaries.  Children learn about their world through play and food is no different). 

We see babies play with food all the time. Being able to comfortably explore food with our senses is crucial for learning self-feeding skills. Many children I work with never played with food as toddlers.

Children need to feel comfortable playing with food and getting messy in order to learn to eat. Amazing things happen when we invite children to use their imagination and explore food using their senses in a non-pressured environment!

Does every child need to play with food?

Food refusal often based on sensory issues. Children who are hesitant to explore food or are over-responsive to sensory input may have strong and aversive reactions to smell, taste, sound or texture.

The inability of a child to comfortably interact with food may signal a feeding issue. For example, children with tactile defensiveness will be hesitant to touch food, get their fingers messy, pick up food in their hands and bring it to their mouths. But by exploring food in a playful manner, and on their own terms, some children can learn to cope with these challenges. Food play is particularly important for children who have limited diets. 

Why is it more important for some children?

Food play is important for all children because play helps develop curiosity about food. Because of past aversive experiences or trauma with food, some children need support engaging in play.

These children might be particularly hesitant to explore food because of sensory overload that can be caused by certain smells/textures or the negative associations they have developed with eating or attempting to eat those foods.  

This is how my play-based feeding therapy program can help. I provide opportunities for children to engage in food play by adapting the play to their level and their abilities. 

Also, it is important to remember that children don’t choose to eat certain foods because of their nutritional value. They eat it because their senses and body react positively with that particular food and eating that food is enjoyable.

If the sight of a food is making a child gag, the child will not eat that food regardless of its nutritional benefits. Through play, children can overcome these “sensory hurdles”.

Therefore, I believe that non-outcome based food exploration should be encouraged for children who are picky eaters and children with feeding disorders. 

How can parents use it a home?

First things first, parents need to work on implementing Satter’s Division of responsibility (DOR).

Once children feel safe and all pressure from tasting or eating food is removed, parents may invite their children to play with food outside of the meal environment. 

For play to “work” its magic, children need to be attached to their caregivers. Therefore, working on parent-child relationship is important if we want children to feel safe and engage in play. You can start doing simple activities like counting pieces of food or feeding real food to dolls or toy animals.

Doing fun arts and crafts activities using food ingredients can also be great. Activities can be done as a family, rules need to be established and parents must avoid pressuring the child into eating the food that is being explored. 

Children can either explore the food using their senses and their imagination. Imaginary play using real food can also be encouraged.

For example, carrot sticks can easily turn into paintbrushes and yogurt can be used as paint.  Children can also use real food to conduct fun food science projects to see how food has the ability to transform.

I once worked with a boy who was afraid of yellow colored cheese. So we used yellow food coloring and made all kinds of food turn yellow. It was a great experiment and it help reduce his anxiety around eating yellow colored cheese. The goal is to have fun!

Three main success tip you can share?

1. Play shouldn’t be outcome based. Don’t pressure your child into exploring food in a way that is aversive. Play must also be adapted to your child’s sensory needs. For example, if a child finds a certain ingredient too “smelly” maybe exploring that food in a container might be more appropriate. 

2. Children must feel free to leave or enter play at any time.  This is very important, if children stop showing interest, it is important to move onto other activities and not force children to play with food. 

3. Include non-preferred and preferred ingredients during play

There needs to be a healthy balance between new and accepted foods during play. This is important to reduce anxiety. When play is too challenging, it becomes work and is no longer considered true play. 

What can parents expect as they start food play with their child?

Children might develop interest in exploring food they have never eaten or have refused in the past. Parents should stay neutral and non-judgmental and steer away from huge reactions either positive or negative if a child does decide to eat a new food.

Through food exploration, children might verbalize certain sensory aspects of foods that they don’t feel comfortable with. It is our job as caregivers to honor those needs during mealtimes and listen to the child. 

What are the main pitfalls you see happen all the time?

  • Pressure!! Sometimes as caregivers we have our own “hidden agenda”, we want our kids to be able to eat xyz. The goal for food play is to create a non-pressured environment where kids can be comfortable exploring foods the way they feel safe and the way their bodies allow them to do so. This allows children to develop a curiosity about exploring new food. When children feel pressured during play, we feed the aversive conditioning and children might become disengaged or avoid food play altogether. 

  • Inappropriate language: using neutral language and respecting boundaries is very important. Never force kids to do anything they don’t feel comfortable doing. 

Any resources you can share with us?

How can parents learn more about what you do and get in touch with you?

I have a website www.naureenhunani.comwhere parents can learn more about what I do. 

Want your child to try new foods? Try this messy strategy - girl playing with bread

Want your child to try new foods? Try this messy strategy - girl playing with bread

Want your child to try new foods? Try this messy strategy - girl playing with bread

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