At IEL, we have updated our language to reflect our continued understanding of disability. This blog, written prior to that update, uses the term “special needs”, but the content remains relevant.
Say Yes to Healthy Snacks is the topic of a popular IEL Tip Sheet. We’ve added suggestions for making snack time an opportunity to explore the five senses. Snacks are an important part of children’s daily nutrition. Children may eat a little one day and more the next day. Their eating may relate to appetite, familiarity with a snack, or sensory aspects of the food, known as “snack appeal.” We’ve added suggestions for children with special needs who may avoid new tastes, smells, textures, or appearance. (Always consider food safety and known allergies before you introduce new snacks.)
Start with finger foods
Preschoolers can enjoy picking up, inspecting, licking, and tasting finger foods. They may try something new that is bite-sized and can be touched and turned over. Be sure to provide separate plates or bowls for each child.
Start small and set a good example
Preschoolers may try a new food if you offer just a taste. After she tries it, give her a choice for more or something familiar. Be sure to introduce new items in small amounts. Show the child that you like the food by joining in the snack, talking about the taste, texture, or smell. Encourage the child to touch, sniff, and taste. Remember that some children may only be willing to try something new if they can look at and touch it first. You may need to introduce the new food across several days before she is willing to eat it.
Involve the child in preparing and exploring
Children often enjoy pouring, stirring, and mixing ingredients together. Making a snack together gives you time to talk about the snack, how it’s made, what it includes, and why it is tasty. It also provides a chance to see, touch, smell, and perhaps taste the parts that go together. Consider putting each ingredient into its own cup or bowl. This is helpful for children who may have vision impairment. They can feel and sniff what they combine. Children who have tactile sensitivity may choose to add part but not all of the snack. Ask the child to combine the bowls one after another. Talk about how the combination is the same or different from each of the parts.
Add imagination to the snack
Children may be willing to try a new item if they can tell a story about it. Consider reading stories about a newly introduced food and retell the story during snack, acting out key parts (including eating). Identify how the snack is good or healthy for the child (as well as for the character in the book).
Provide an alternative
A child may not like the texture or the taste or the look of a snack. Certain foods may be associated with stressful meals in the past, or the texture may be unappealing for a child who has sensory integration issues. Always provide a healthy alternative if a child turns down the snack. Be sure to vary the alternative over time to ensure that a child experiences some variety. Snacks are important for children’s nutrition and healthy development.
Take safety precautions in serving food
Know a child’s allergies and report any allergic reactions to the parents. Also watch out for food that may cause choking.