Sensory food play FAQS

Sensory food play

What is sensory food play?

Sensory food play is simply guided play which encourages little ones to explore food with all of their senses – using the power of play as a learning tool in the early years.

Sensory food play is a fun and easy way to help children eat more fruit + vegetables by building their confidence curiosity to increase their willingness to try healthy food.

There is growing evidence that this type of educational play can increase a child’s willingness to try new fruit + veg, which can in turn become a liking for them, ultimately helping to set the healthy food habits that can last a lifetime.

Sensory food play

What are the benefits of offering sensory food play in early years settings?

Sensory food play in early years settings focuses on engaging all the senses to teach little ones about healthy food in a fun + engaging way. Children are encouraged to use their creativity, curiosity, and imagination to explore fruit and vegetables in an educational environment, guided by an early years educator. This helps increase their confidence and break down barriers when it comes to trying and accepting new food.

This isn’t about making macaroni necklaces, throwing spaghetti around or crafting with cereal – this is evidence based, purposeful, and educational play-based learning that is cost-effective, easy to implement, and could help more little ones across the country eat more fruits and veggies and ultimately grow up healthy + happy!

That’s why we are calling on the government to ensure sensory food play is offered in all early years settings.

Sensory food play

Can you do sensory food play at home?

Absolutely! Sensory food play at home is a great way to engage your little one with healthy food inside and outside of mealtimes. Whilst this is a little different to sensory food play in an educational setting, the principles are similar and we have lots of fun activities and tips to help you and your little ones give it a try – just follow this LINK:

Sensory food play

What are the benefits of sensory food play?

There is growing evidence from across the world that sensory food play can help little ones eat more fruit + veg, and develop healthy relationships with food.

The evidence shows three key things:

  1. Sensory food play in the early years can help improve a child’s curiosity about, and willingness to try, new food they otherwise might not.
  2. It can expand the amount of fruit + veg little ones know and like – giving it the clear potential to increase the amount of fruit + veg little ones eat for the long term.
  3. It has the greatest benefit for those little ones who have either not had access to, or are less accepting of, fruit + vegetables before they begin sensory food play – who are sometimes from less affluent backgrounds

We’d like to see more research done on how best to teach sensory food play in early years settings, which is why we’re working with Flavour School and the Early Years Alliance to set up pilots in early years settings in England.

Sensory food play

Why is sensory food play important?

Our nation’s little ones simply don’t eat enough fruit + veg. In fact, only 18% of children aged 5-15 eat the recommended five portions of fruit + veg a day, and 29% aged 5-10 eat less than one portion a day. As a nation, we are failing to build the healthy food habits our little ones need to stay happy + healthy, with more than 1 in 4 children being diagnosed as overweight or living with obesity by the time they enter primary school. We need to do more to help protect the health of our nation’s children.

The worsening situation across the country puts significant strain on our shared resources, with the National Health Service and social care providers struggling to treat illness, injury and disease caused by poor diet.

It is far more cost effective to treat problems before they occur. That means starting early to set habits that will allow children to grow up healthy, reduce diet-related illness, and minimise the burden on the NHS.

Research shows that simply telling a child what to eat or educating them about why they should stay away from junk food, isn’t effective. Little ones need more creative interventions that begin as early as possible and harness their tendencies to explore the world through play – helping them fall in love with fruit + veg and overcome fears about new foods. That’s where sensory food play comes in!

We believe that every little one should have this educational opportunity, but we can’t make this happen alone. We need your support.

Sensory food play

Does sensory food play create waste?

Sensory food play in early years settings only needs a very small amount of fruit + veg for a really fun and effective lesson, and early years practitioners can easily adapt lessons to keep food waste to an absolute minimum. For example, it is often possible to use fruits and veggies that are left-over from mealtimes, or would otherwise not be eaten.

If you’re trying sensory food play at home, there’s nothing wrong with using the fruits + veggies in a meal afterwards as long as you make sure little hands are nice and clean before you play! You can also use peelings and off cuts for sensory play to help avoid waste.

Some sensory food activities do end in waste, but the amount of food not eaten is generally no more than you would expect to be made by an enthusiastic little one at mealtimes.

In the long-term, sensory food play can actually help tackle food waste overall, by helping little ones fall in love with fruit + veg and reducing the chances of them rejecting healthy food at home.

Sensory food play

Why is Ella’s getting involved?

Ella's Kitchen was founded with a mission to improve children's lives through developing healthy relationships with food. We have long campaigned on a range of issues associated with early childhood nutrition, and a big part of this is making sure little ones have access to healthy foods like fruit and vegetables, and are given the opportunities to grow up loving them!

We already work with lots of amazing food access charities and organisations like FareShare and Community Shop, but we also recognise that more needs to be done to increase the amount of fruit and veggies that little ones eat, no matter their background. The sad fact is that many little ones simply aren’t getting the nutrition they need to grow up healthy and happy. That’s why we decided to follow the evidence, working with some of the UK’s leading food education, nutrition, and early years experts, which led us to sensory food play.

Ultimately, we believe that the only way to create positive change is by getting involved, and that all businesses have a responsibility to use their influence to help make the world a better place. That’s why we were one of the first businesses in the UK to become a B Corp, why we’ll always be the little ones’ lobbyists, and why we’ll always champion business as a force for good!

Sensory food play

Why these policy changes?

We want to see sensory food play rolled out in all early years settings across the UK. That’s why we’re calling on the UK Government to:

  1. Amend the Early Years Foundation Stage to include sensory food play as part of the Managing Self Early Learning Goal.
  2. Support early years educators by providing comprehensive, age appropriate, Department for Education-approved guidance on how to carry out sensory food play in early years settings.
  3. Provide ring-fenced funding for sensory food play for less affluent early years settings.

By adding sensory food play to the Early Years Foundation Stage (the equivalent of the curriculum), all early years settings will be encouraged to deliver this, meaning we can reach every little one.

The Department for Education approved guidance for early years educators will ensure the activities are delivered in an effective way, and the call for ring-fenced funding will help those early years settings that cater to little ones from the least affluent backgrounds have the same access to sensory food play as their peers.

Taken together, all our policy asks are designed to make sure that sensory food play is delivered in a safe, effective, and evidence-based way that will achieve maximum impact and reach every little one, no matter their background.

Sensory food play

Can early years settings be expected to deliver sensory food education during a cost-of-living crisis?

The cost-of-living crisis is at the forefront of our minds in launching this campaign, which is why we’ve engaged with food access charities in arriving at this policy ask and have a section on cost-of-living in our policy paper. We’ve also worked with some of the UK’s leading food education, nutrition, and early years experts to make sure what we’re asking for is easy to implement and cost-effective.

We know that 29% of little ones eat less than 1 portion of fruit and veg a day. We also know that 1 in 4 little ones are living with overweight or obesity by the time they start primary school. Sadly, the effects of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis is likely to see this figure rise, not fall. That’s why a low-cost, but potentially high impact, intervention like sensory food play is needed now more than ever. In fact, the research actually shows that this intervention has the greatest benefit for those little ones from the least affluent backgrounds, who are at the most risk of diet related illnesses.

We can’t solve the cost of living crisis that parents face at home, but we can work together to make sure all early years settings have the tools and, importantly, the funding they need to educate little ones about healthy food choices and mitigate the impact of diet related illnesses. That’s why we’re asking Government to fund sensory food play in less affluent early years settings.

Sensory food play

Is sensory food play a choking risk?

Sensory food play should always be supervised, whether it be carried out in an early years setting, or at home. It's also important make sure all the foods offered in sensory play are safe for little ones to avoid choking.

Whole fruit and vegetables, if they are large (e.g. broccoli, apples, carrots) can be given to children in their natural state but chopped raw carrot or apple might not be appropriate for children under 2 years old unless grated. Small round foods like grapes, cherry tomatoes and blueberries should be quartered lengthways and avoid giving them to children under 12m.

For more information on the safe preparation of food for young children, see

Sensory food play

What about allergies?

When trying new food you should always be on the lookout for potential allergies, and this is the same for sensory food play. Early years educators are trained to spot the signs of allergies and should have a robust allergy policy in place to help keep little ones safe.

The risk of allergies to vegetables and fruit, which is what we advise is used in sensory food play, is very low compared with common allergens like nuts, milk or egg.

For more advice on common signs of an allergic reaction and what to do, click here: