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:
Older babies and toddlers/children (10+ months):
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 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!
Megan and Judy, co-owners of Feeding Littles, bring you helpful info on food, nutrition, picky eating, and feeding young children. Megan McNamee MPH, RDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist based in Scottsdale, Arizona. Judy Delaware, OTR/L is an Occupational Therapist specializing in feeding therapy with children 3 and under in Boulder, Colorado. Megan and Judy are both moms of two and love helping families develop a healthy appetite for all foods!