When I trained as a dietitian (over 20yrs ago now!), the concept of sensory eaters was still in its infancy. Back then I’m afraid to say that we treated a lot of “fussy eaters” same way, giving out fairly universal advice. As my career progressed I spent more time working with children that found eating difficult for a variety of reasons. Over time I became familiar with the concept of sensory eaters and realised they needed a different approach to help them make progress.
A sensory eater is a child who has a particular preference for the texture, smell, taste or temperature of a food. When food doesn’t meet their specific preference, they can find the food extremely challenging to accept. Children with these issues are highly likely to have other sensory issues too (eg they may find noise overwhelming or constantly seek inout from their surroundings). Put all of these things together and it’s not surprising that a school lunch box can be a very overwhelming experience for a child.
There are many many kids that experience sensory issues with food, so if you are struggling with this know you’re not alone. An added difficulty that many parents now face is that it has become common place for schools and kindergartens to have in place some type of “healthy food policy”. Whilst I’m all for health promoting environments, i strongly feel these policies MUST just be guidelines only, and are very definitely NOT to be enforced or policed. Our food choices are complex and shaped by so many factors that it’s never ok to judge what another parent feeds their child - we’re all doing our best. With that in mind, here are my top tips to help you pack a lunch box if you have a sensory eater -1. Use a Bento Style Lunch Box
I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, I just truly believe that this style of lunch box works best for kids with sensory issues. Having only one box to master opening and closing, is far less overwhelming. Having all of their food options on display also helps them to decide what they feel confident and comfortable eating at any given time. Keeping all the food separate is also a no brainer - it preserves the integrity of each item you are offering, and there’s no risk of one food “contaminating” another by touching it. Offering a small amount of a variety of accepted foods is also likely to be helpful - don’t go overboard, kids feel more confident if they have less not more good to eat.
2. Stick to their Preferred Foods
It’s tempting with all the healthy food policies and colourful lunch boxes you might see other people sending to want to replicate this for your own child. For most of the kids I’ve worked with, the school environment is rarely a place they are likely to experiment with a new food. Kids are most likely to try a new food in an environment where they feel safe should they need to spit it out or feel they might gag. Add in the other sensory issues they might be facing at school (a really noisy environment, the smell of other people’s lunches) and you’ll probably find that school is a place they eat less not more. I would also strongly encourage you to chat with your child’s teacher before the year starts about your child’s lunch box - it is preferable that you forewarn them that your child’s lunch box may not look like other kids, and whilst you are well aware of any healthy food policies that might exist, explain that adhering to this is simply not achievable for your child and why. Kid’s with sensory feeding difficulties really just need to be left alone with their lunch - pressure from teachers only serves to make them feel bad about themselves or their food choices and add further stress to an already difficult situation.
3. Know your Child’s Preferred Food Texture/Taste/Smell/Look
If you’re aware that your child has sensory issues, you’ve probably already considered that all of their food has something in common. If you haven’t it's well worth sitting down and trying to work out whether there is a common thread. Does your child have a preference for crunchy, smooth or soft foods? Do they like all beige or white foods? Are mixed texture foods a problem? Do they prefer everything sweet or salty or just very bland? Use this information to write out a master list of foods they might accept and use this for both packing the school lunchbox and meals and snacks that you might offer at home. If you feel a bit stuck a feeding therapist that specialises in this area can really help (that might be a dietitian, OT or Speech Pathologist)
4. Make the Food Easier to Handle
Touching food can be an issue for many kids. Simple additions to your lunch box such as some reusable food picks or food skewers for slippery or wet foods can be useful. Using a cookie or sandwich cutter to cut bread, fruit or veggies into shapes can make the food more appealing and less scary for many kids.
3. Consider the Eating Environment
As mentioned above kids with sensory eating challenges may have other sensory issues too. Sometimes addressing some of these issues can make the school meal time environment more enjoyable for your child. For example, are they better with supported seating rather than sitting on the grass, do they need a “wiggle cushion” to feel grounded and be able to focus on eating? Do they need to be separated slightly from other kids if the smell of other people’s lunches is too much? If some of these things can be sensitively accommodated it can be a big win.
Most of all I want to say to be kind to yourself. If your child needs the reassurance of seeing the same thing packed every single day in their lunch box, then so be it. The most important thing is that they are fed!! There are now many feeding clinics across Australia that specialise in helping kids with sensory feeding difficulties (or any feeding challenges for that matter). Whether you’re unsure if your child’s currently accepted foods are meeting their nutrient needs and want some reassurance on this front, or need some ideas to help gently expand their diet, a multi disciplinary clinic comprised of dietitians, OTs and speech pathologist can be really beneficial.
If you have a sensory eater - let me know in the comments below what you’ve found helpful when it comes to packing a school lunch box.