#28 - The Benefits of Sensory Food Play

Jun 11, 2023
#28 - The Benefits of Sensory Food Play

Welcome to episode #28 of the Food Explorers Podcast. While you have heard me mention the importance of fun and food play at the table in past episodes, today we are diving deep into why I’m such a big proponent of using food play when children struggle to try new foods. 


Before we get started, I did want to mentioned that I have a new FREE resource available for you - it’s called 5 Sensory Food Play Ideas for Helping Your Child Become a More Adventurous Eater - I’ll tell you more about it at the end of this episode. So let’s get started.


I want you to picture this in your head. A dining room table filled with colorful fruits, vegetables, silly utensils, and various textures. Your children are giggling, playing, and exploring food happily. This is the magical world that we call food play. 


Food play is exactly what it sounds like - we play with food to encourage children to interact with food in a non-threatening and exploratory manner. It helps them build positive associations with food, overcome sensory challenges, and develop the skills to become more adventurous and confident eaters. 


But WHY? How does this work? Let’s chat about a few reasons: 


  1. Sensory Exploration and Exposure: For children with feeding challenges, exploring different textures, tastes, smells, and colors is essential. Food play allows them to engage their senses, gradually desensitize themselves, and develop acceptance for various food properties. Through touching, squishing, smelling, and even tasting food in a playful setting, children can gradually expand their food repertoire and become more open to trying new things. I want you to think about when your child was first a baby. As a baby - they know nothing about new foods. At first, they’re pretty hesitant about it. But through repeated happy exposures, they learn that eating these new foods can be pleasurable and fun.

  2. Building Positive Associations: Many children with feeding challenges associate mealtimes and the table with stress, anxiety, and pressure. Food play helps shift this negative mindset by creating a positive and enjoyable environment around eating. When children have the freedom to interact with food in a playful manner, they begin to associate it with fun, curiosity, and exploration. These positive associations can transform their relationship with food, making mealtimes less daunting and more pleasurable.

  3. Skill Development: Food play provides a valuable platform for developing essential feeding skills. Children can practice self-feeding, fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and even oral motor skills through various food play activities. For example, stacking fruits, using utensils to scoop and transfer food, or tearing lettuce leaves can enhance a child's dexterity and hand strength and prepare them for successful independent feeding.

Of course, you all know I love my research, so let’s talk about some of the evidence behind food play. While there is a need for more comprehensive research in the area of food play for children with feeding challenges, there are a few interesting studies that are worth mentioning.

The first study, conducted by a group of occupational therapists, focused on using the SOS (Sequential Oral Sensory) food play approach with one child. They aimed to determine if introducing wet foods through food play for six weeks could increase the child's acceptance of that specific food. The Steps to Eating approach utilized in the study helped the child broaden their variety of foods, decrease mealtime behaviors, and ultimately accept the non-preferred wet food at home.

Another study discovered a correlation between tactile (also known as messy) play and a child's willingness to eat a variety of foods. This finding aligns with our understanding of the sensory system. I’ve mentioned in the past that the touch receptors in our hands are similar to those in our mouths. By allowing children to engage in tactile food play and enjoy the sensory experience with their hands, we can increase their likelihood of accepting and enjoying the same foods at the table.


Lastly, Is a study we talked about in the past, but it's worth highlighting again. The study compared sensory food play to visual exposure alone (liked when we simply place a food on a child's plate) and non-sensory play. The results demonstrated that sensory food play was more effective in promoting acceptance and willingness to try new foods compared to the other approaches.

I have attached all of these studies below, so you can check them out and form your own opinion.


While these studies show us there are some benefits to food play, it's important for me to mention that further research is needed. The gold standard in research includes reviews of multiple studies and randomized control trials, which are currently limited in this area.

Now that we understand the importance of food play and the research behind it, let's explore some practical strategies for encouraging food play at the table.


  1. Create a food adventure zone: Many parents struggle with allowing children to play with their food at meals, because they’re worried about how this will affect behavior at mealtime. While I am a big proponent of positive food memories over manners, I do understand where you’re coming from here. One option could be to set up a designated area in the kitchen or a separate play station where children can engage with their food either at mealtime, or during a different part of the day.

  2. Make it easy to clean up: I love doing food play outside, or putting down a plastic tablecloth inside so you can easily clean it up and keep going on with your day. Another really great strategy is to do this before bathtime, so if your child gets messy, you don’t need to worry about it as much, because they’ll be going right into the bath afterwords.

  3. Get Creative with Food Art: This is easily my favorite food play technique. Children love to  use their imagination and create food art. Provide them with safe tools like cookie cutters, silicone molds, or edible paints made from food purees or puddings. Let them sculpt, design, and paint with their food. Not only does this enhance their creativity, but it also makes mealtime more engaging and exciting.

  4. Sensory Trays and Bins: Sensory trays and bins can be filled with any food and can be a fantastic way to promote food play. From rice, lentils, and pasta to soft fruits and vegetables, these tactile experiences help children explore different textures and sensory sensations, and start to become acclimated to them. I love  adding tools like spoons, scoops, and cups to encourage fine motor skill development, and give them some ideas of how to play.

Remember, patience and consistency are key when introducing food play. Start small, gradually expanding the range of foods, and always respect your child's pace.

And, to help you out on this food play journey, I’m excited to share that I have a completely NEW resource for you. It is called 5 Sensory Food Play Ideas to Help Your Child Become a More Adventurous Eater. 


What sets this guide apart is its emphasis on exploring beyond the ordinary sensory play materials like rice, beans, play-doh, and slime. The activities I’ve shared in this guide are designed to go beyond the conventional, focusing on creating play experiences that actually simulate the various aspects of the eating.


I do realize that you have busy schedules and limited time. With this in mind, the guide offers simple and practical suggestions. You don't need elaborate setups or extravagant ingredients to engage in sensory play. Instead, the focus is on utilizing everyday objects and ingredients readily available in your home to create stimulating sensory experiences.


Whether you’re new to food play, or are just  looking for some, this free guide is the perfect resource to bring some adventure to the table.


To grab your free copy go to www.drsamgoldman.com/5-sensory-food-play-ideas. If you download this I’d love to know what you think of it, so send me a DM on Instagram and let me know your thoughts. 


I’ll see you back here next week where we’ll going to chat about why your food introductions may not be going as well as you hoped. I’ll see you then!


  1. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/313691718_Play_with_your_food_Sensory_play_is_associated_with_tasting_of_fruits_and_vegetables_in_preschool_children
  2. https://research.aota.org/ajot/article/74/4_Supplement_1/7411515345p1/9460/The-Impact-of-Tactile-Play-on-Increasing-Oral
  3. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/284810406_Food_neophobia_and_enjoyment_of_tactile_play_Associations_between_preschool_children_and_their_parents



***This post/podcast is not sponsored. The opinions and content of this blog/podcast are unique to the writer unless otherwise stated. No compensation is received for the links shared. All contents of this episode are based on our personal opinions and experiences.

Disclaimers: The information provided by SAMANTHA N. GOLDMAN, LLC (“we,” “us” or “our”) on theot4me.com, drsamgoldman.com, and samantha-goldman.mykajabi.com (the “Site”) is for general informational purposes only. The Site cannot and does not contain medical advice. Any medical information is provided as my/our personal experiences is not a substitute for professional advice. Accordingly, before taking any actions based upon such information, we encourage you to consult with the appropriate professionals. We do not provide any kind of medical advice.


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