Sensory Hierarchy

Eating or trying a new food is hard for many children and many adults across the world! There are many factors that can be at play when a child refuses to try a new food, but one of the most common reasons for refusal and tantrums when trying new foods is due to "fear of novelty" and sensory processing difficulties. A proven method to desensitize children with new sensory experiences that EACH different food brings and to familiarize themselves with food in a positive and fun way is through a sensory hierarchy approach. Through this sensory hierarchy approach to battling picky eating and aversive reactions to "trying a bite", we want to de-mystify this myth:

Taking a bite of a new food is SO EASY and can be done in 2-3 exposures

You'll see through this guide that taking a bite and putting food into the mouth (and swallowing) is one of the LAST steps when learning about a new food. It can take about 20-25 different exposures before children are ready to take a bite and truly try the new food. 

Here is a step-by-step guide to introducing new foods to your picky eater. If your child is not comfortable with one of these steps, please do not expect them to be able to engage in a more complex step. 

When using our guide to learn about new foods through play, the games will be categorized into three different levels. The levels and the way we progress with the games are based using the sensory hierarchy principles. Always start with level 1, and continue increasing the difficulty, as your child becomes more comfortable with the new food!


Level 1



Level 1 are games, activities and arts & crafts that are heavily based on steps 1 and step 2 in the sensory hierarchy above. Hence, this level requires children to interact with food without actually needing to touch the food with the hands. Either another person (ex. you, a sibling, or a friend) will interact with the food while they watch, or they might use utensils or other materials to learn about the food. 

It is important during level 1 activities to not pressure your child to touch the food you want to introduce. If your child asks or seems interested in touching the food with their hands, encourage them to do so! But it should be out of their own volition and their own motivation to touch the food.

Level 2



Level 2 games, activities and arts & crafts are heavily based on steps 3 and step 4 in the sensory hierarchy above. We are at the point that your child is interacting with the food by touching the food with their hands, on their lips, and even on the face! The closer we get to the mouth, the more sensory experiences they will learn about the food (ex. the close to the mouth, the more they will smell the food).

It is important during level 2 activities to not pressure your child to touch the food with their mouths right away. Start by poking the food with their hands, then rubbing the food on all the fingers. Then you can play a game with the cheeks and finally, touching the foods with the lips. The final step in level 2 activities will be to touch the food with the lips, but we do NOT expect them to put the foods in their mouths yet. 

If your child is interested in taking a bite or putting the food in the mouth, then encourage them to do so! Your child will be ready for level 3


Level 3












Level 3 is the final level of the sensory hierarchy - this is where your child is interacting with the food in the mouth (but not necessarily eating and swallowing the food). At this point, your child will have games, activities, and arts & crafts that will encourage your child to lick, chew, bite and potentially swallow the food! By playing with foods at level 3, your child will be learning all about the texture of the food in the mouth, the taste of the food, and even the biting skills needed to break down the food!

It is important in level 3 activities that you do not expect them to swallow the food right away. Get them to touch the tip of the tongue with the food first, then lick 5 times. You can then ask them to hold the food with their teeth.

Have a designated spitting bowl or spitting napkin during level 3 activities. Your child will probably not like the food at first and would like to spit out the food, as they are not comfortable yet to swallow. This is totally normal and should be encouraged! You can even have a safe food or a drink (ex. juice) next to them so if they do not like the sensory experience of the new food, they can just eat a bite of a safe food to wipe the mouth clear of the new sensory experience. 


Don't go too fast with the levels. If your child still seems to be "stuck" in level 2 for months, that is okay! Keep doing the activities and you can even browse to other foods and modify the activities to fit the food you are working on! 

Overall, we want to teach your child that learning about new foods can be hard and we, as adults, understand! Keep learning and exploring the foods through a positive approach and don't give up!