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Creating A Sensory-Friendly Grazing Environment

Providing graze boards is a great way of taking the pressure off eating. Eating is pressurised in all sorts of ways, including time and place. We are expected to eat at particular times and in particular places. Although the timing and setting of a taste experience do not affect the sensory pressure of it, the requirement adds to the list of things a child is asked to do. Earlier in this article, I asked you to imagine being asked to learn five difficult things all at once. Now, imagine if I asked you to do that while also completing several easy tasks at the same time. Even though these extra things are not part of the problem, it's still easier to tackle the problem without them there. By recognising the considerable demands we place on people who struggle with eating due to sensory reasons, we can understand that any small way we can make it easier for them is worthwhile.

Before I continue here, I just want to dart back to one of the duff bits of advice given as an example at the start of this article, it is a classic, it goes to the tune of: “just don’t feed them, once they’re hungry they will eat”. Parents receiving this advice despair because they know it is not true: their children do not become any more willing to eat when hungry, because the reason they were refusing to eat in the first place was never anything to do with hunger. If they have sensory differences, it is likely that one of the senses that is working differently is their child’s interoceptive sense. This is the sensory system that feels whether you are hungry or not, so if you cannot feel that you are hungry being hungry, isn’t going to make any difference. So providing graze boards is not a way of supporting the 'making them wait until they're hungry' line of thinking. 

Understanding Challenges In Eating

A graze board is exactly what it sounds like, a board, or plate, or tray, with a few things to graze upon. I would advise putting very little on there. A child faced with a plate of food they must finish is faced with a mammoth task. A single morsel is eaten, and completed, very quickly, there is a lot less pressure there. A graze board is left out, and the child is made aware of it and told they are allowed to eat from it, but is not asked to eat from it. No one pushes them towards it, it is simply available to them. When starting with a grazing board you have to remember you are trying to create the opposite of the pressurised environment of sitting down to eat. You might even opt to not mention it to the child at all, simply put it somewhere that they will encounter it.  

Another great tip for starting with a grazing board is to not put too many different things on it, and if the child (or adult) has food they favour, make sure that is there, even if it is junk food. Say, I know a child who will only eat chocolate buttons. I might start a grazing board for them that has three chocolate buttons, a frozen pea, a small salted cracker, and a slice of sausage on it. I would expect the chocolate buttons to be gone instantly. This is great, it means they have found the board, and they will have had the experience that when they eat from it they are not told off. So they know there is a board, they know it has food on it, and they know they can eat that food. I would not expect any of the other food to go missing for a long while. I might top it up with a chocolate button or two just to keep the board in their mind. But maybe after a while, once they were returning to the board quite often, I’d stop that. And just leave the other items there, will they get curious? Maybe I choose a slice of sausage that is similar in appearance to the buttons, it is round, thin, a dark brown colour…. (I know the mention of a frozen pea above might have sounded strange, it’s there as it’s been one of the things I’ve had the most success with when establishing graze boards The coldness of the pea protects against the smell and taste, the hardness of it gives bold feedback to the jaw and it is small and easily eaten, plus it is healthy!) 

Over time, you would hope to be able to provide things on the board that the child was happy to eat. You provide eating in a way that fits with how the child needs to eat (not how society deems we must eat – remember that originally we were animals that grazed, the ritual of sitting down to three meals a day with the expected social conventions of doing so is a relatively recent invention, it is not necessary to eat, it’s just tradition). Top the board up regularly so that over the course of a day, the child eats a wide range of foods they enjoy and that provide nutrition to their body.  

Of course, with all of the strategies listed here, and the many more you’ll find online, the person still needs to eat. With any other situation, you could stop asking them to do it all together and build them up slowly, but with food, it is different. So think sensory. Can you help them to escape some of the challenges even if you cannot help them escape all of them? Can they eat away from others, so they only have to deal with their eating, not everyone else? Can their food be blended so they do not have to deal with texture? Could it be eaten cold, or even frozen, to mitigate smell and taste? Would they cope better with a meal replacement drink (not one of the diet ones but one intended to be a full meal)? These might not be strategies you can use all the time, but even just a bit, to give them a break, could help. If they have a preferred food, celebrate that and avoid the temptation to doctor it. I have been there - (Slicing open chips and trying to hide vitamin pills inside.) It is such a big gamble because if they no longer consider that food is safe because it might have been tampered with, they lose the calories it could have provided.  

Eating and the senses is a very complicated thing, this article, has barely scratched the surface, but I hope it will help. Take off the pressure, be playful, create space, and respect how big of an ask it is. You are doing a brilliant job! 

I hope you have enjoyed this series of ten articles exploring the sensory world in all its wonders and possibilities. Do come and connect with me online the connection links for my social media accounts can be found on my website www.TheSensoryProjects.co.uk and if you want to re-read any of the earlier articles remember they are all available online to explore and share with families.  

Explore more in this series on sensory needs here:

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

About the author:

Joanna Grace is an international Sensory Engagement and Inclusion Specialist, trainer, author, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. Joanna draws on her own personal experiences to inform her writing surround neurodivergence, SEN, and inclusion in early years.

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