Sensory Integration at Home: Food and Drink

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Most of us know that food and drink have powerful effects on the way kids function.  What many people don’t realize is that it’s not just about nutrition.  Before the foods they eat and the liquids they drink even make it to their stomachs, they can have profound influences on their sensory systems. 


Let’s start with a typical scene in many households.  Your son walks in…no, make that bounces in the door after school.  He has a lot of homework as usual and you’ve already started skillfully reasoning with him that the sooner he starts, the sooner he’ll be done, while he recklessly begins jumping up and down on the couch.  He interrupts your appeal by announcing that he wants a snack.   What you may not have known, until now, is that this is a great opportunity to have an impact on his sensory system in a way that will organize his behavior and help him focus on his homework.  Following are some ways you can use food and drink to bring him down a few notches. 


The key to making smart food and drink choices for sensory integration purposes is to think about “The Three Ts.”  These are Texture, Temperature, and Taste.  First, let’s look at texture.  Crunchy, sharp textures such as crackers or croutons have an alerting, excitatory effect.  The rubbing of the hard, rough surfaces against the gums and teeth and even the sound effects of chewing them have a rousing, “upper” effect on the nervous system, especially a system that struggles to integrate sensory information properly.  On the other hand, smooth creamy textures such as yogurt and chewy, denser textures such as zucchini bread are calming and organizing in nature. 


Temperature is an often-overlooked but important aspect of food and drink in the context of sensory integration.  Cold temperatures are alerting while warm foods or drinks are generally more calming.  


Finally, taste must be considered.  Although taste is surely the most obvious feature of food and drink, choosing taste for sensory integration purposes is a new way of thinking for many parents.  It is further complicated by the fact that, even more so than texture and temperature, it varies greatly by individual.  And of course, there are so many different flavor combinations out there to choose from! So in this area it is important to pay attention to what specific tastes tend to increase or decrease the number of walls your child bounces off of at certain times of the day!  But luckily, there are a few guidelines.  Sweet flavors are likely to be the most calming organizing flavors – now you may be thinking, “WAIT, DID I READ THAT RIGHT?”  Yes, you did.  Here, we are not talking about sugar so much as the flavor sensation.  Sweets that contain large amounts of refined sugar, such as cookies or candy, will result in the familiar “sugar high” as well as other unpleasant effects in some children.  This is when nutrition definitely comes into play…the trick is to choose sweet flavors that contain natural sugars such as those found in fruit.  OK, where were we?  Oh yes…sweet flavors are more apt to organize, while spicy and sour tastes will be more likely to excite.  A few common examples are that vanilla and banana flavors tend to be calming while cinnamon and citrus are more likely to be excitatory. 


So the next time your child needs a little sensory regulation, you’ll have the confidence and know-how to say “Sure my love, you can have a banana and a glass of warm milk before we tackle those spelling words!” 


By Rebecca Shmukler, Owner and Occupational Therapist at Dynamic Therapy.