If you have a child with sensory challenges, you probably know the struggle of lunchtime. Busy school cafeterias can be full of intense smells, noise and social stimulation your child might find overwhelming. When you try to add in the task of eating, lunchtime may feel downright impossible.
“Children with sensory sensitivities and aversions are often described to be ‘picky eaters,’ Cynthia Martin, Psy.D., who specializes in assessing young children with developmental concerns, told The Mighty. “In general a child with sensory aversions and sensitives will find certain smells, tastes, textures and sights intolerable. A child may also have temperature preferences. One child might only eat very hot food, while another prefers food to be a cooler temperature, like it just came out of the refrigerator.”
Some children have such restricted preferences that they actually meet the criteria for a clinical feeding disorder (which are distinct from eating disorders). One such example is avoidant and restricted food intake disorder (ARFID), a condition where a child has such strong aversions to foods that he or she may experience disturbances in growth and weight.
If you are a parent struggling to find foods your child with sensory issues will eat, you’re not alone. We want to help you and your child have a successful lunchtime experience, so we turned to Cynthia Martin, Psy.D., who specializes in assessing young children with developmental concerns, to share her thoughts. In addition, we asked parents in our Mighty community to weigh in with their experiences. Read what they had to say below.
Here are six tips for packing a lunch your child with sensory issues will want to eat:
1. Pack What You Know Your Child Will Eat
In recent years, there has been a national push to provide healthier school lunches to children. While this is great news for the majority of children, it can pose some problems for children who eat very selectively.
“I feel strongly that parents should pack what their children will eat. School lunchtimes are not the place to work on expanding a child’s food repertoire. That should be done outside of school lunchtime,” Martin told The Mighty. “If the foods a child will accept are not the most nutritious, then the parents should strongly consider talking to teachers and other school staff so they know the reason why certain foods are being sent to school and to make sure everyone is on the same page.”
via Amber A.
“Chips, black olives, juice, beef jerky sticks, gummies and a pumpkin cookie.” — Amber A.
“My son usually just has sandwiches, or spaghetti. Along with a yogurt, cheese stick and apple. If those aren’t in his lunch, he won’t eat. He also takes his sandwich apart and eats it all separately.” — Anissa S.
“My daughter is a grazer. I pick a variety of small things I know she’ll eat, as well as ones I want her to try. Her favorite is Nutella on tortillas, but that is not allowed at school. She’s not a meat-eater, so protein sources are hard.” — Bonnie E.
2. Ask for Accommodations at School
If your child has sensory issues that impact their ability to eat or get through lunch, talk to the school administrators about getting an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 that includes lunchtime instructions.
“Parents always have the option to also get an extra layer of protection by asking for a 504 plan that outlines the accommodations their child will need during lunchtime,” Martin told The Mighty.
To learn more about 504s and IEPs, head here.
3. Use Bento Boxes
Martin recommends parents use Bento boxes to pack lunches since the child only has to open one container, as opposed to multiple containers or baggies.
“We usually end up doing more of a ‘Bento Box’ (notice a pattern of crunchy foods?) He doesn’t eat much at school because there isn’t an adult prompting him to eat. He also has sensory issues with the cafeteria, saying he can’t eat in there because it’s too loud, smells bad and the tables are dirty. Thankfully we are welcome to eat lunch with our child every day at his school and he also participates in ‘Lunch Bunch’ for social skills. My husband and I each make it a priority to eat lunch with him at least once a week to help ensure he eats. We also give him a Carnation Breakfast drink with whole milk directly after school to help make up some of the calories.” — Jaimie L.
via Jaime L.
“My 5-year-old Autistic twins eat differently. One likes the same thing everyday, it is crunchy foods including freezed dried fruit and chicken nuggets. While his brother is picky but will eat different textures.” — Nicole A.
via Nicole A.
“I have a child with ARFID. We can only feed him foods he does eat for weight gain while he works with therapy. I use the divided lunch containers. I put fruit cups without their juice in separate closable containers because if the juice is touching another food, he will not eat it. Keeping food warm is a big problem in lunches so he has now learned that it’s better for him to have lunches that don’t require the food to be a certain temperature. He prefers peanut butter sandwiches. We also have some accommodations at school in his IEP.” — Cassandra L.
4. Make Lunches Visually Appealing
For many kids with sensory issues, appearance can mean a lot when it comes to food. Some kids prefer certain shapes or colors when it comes to food. Martin recommends using cookie cutters to cut sandwiches or other lunch items into fun shapes that will make eating more enjoyable for your child.
“We found that if it is cut up and put on a stick, he will eat the apple, but not if it is just cut and quartered. He won’t eat certain meats, the texture makes him gag. So we take cooked ham, and make little cubes and put those alternating with apples or cantaloupe on the toothpick. He will eat [that].” — Russ K.
“Notice a pattern? I think the picture speaks for itself. My son will not touch anything that is or looks cold/wet/mushy. Crackers, bread, cookies, etc. is what I have to pack for him. Also the white-orange color pattern is pretty obvious. This is his lunch every day and has been for two years.” — Joy C.
via Joy C.
5. Involve Your Child in the Lunch-Packing or Grocery Shopping Process
Some parents find success when they involve their child in the lunch-time selection process. Whether that means taking your child with you to the grocery store or having them help you pack their lunch, giving the child more opportunities to voice their opinions may help.
“I take my son with me to the supermarket and he gets to choose what goes in [his lunch] for the next day for school. Then we talk about the food we choose. He is a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to apples with no brown marks… I also get him — when possible — to help me pack his lunch box and when he gets home, we talk about what he liked, what he didn’t, etc. We ask for it to go in the fridge at school and leave little notes to the teachers on what to heat up and what he likes cold. I found mini water bottles in [the grocery store] and I write an encouraging message on it for him to read at lunchtime.” — Laiani E.
6. Don’t Be Afraid to Pack the Same Lunch Every Day
Martin told The Mighty some kids with sensory issues find comfort in predictability, and do best when they eat the same thing every day. As we mentioned in the first tip, find what your child will eat and stick to it.
“My 14-year-old son has the same thing every day: turkey pepperoni, two cheddar cheese sticks (Cracker Barrel, because they are the easiest to open), a banana, a peeled mandarin orange (pre-peeled because of time constraints), a Fiber One brownie bar and a Go-gurt. He buys milk at school. The orange is a fairly new addition — it was a joyous day when he added them to his limited food list.” — Darr S.
“Lunchables. Every day. Lunchables. Can’t be the homemade kind. Turkey, American and Oreos. But he won’t touch the cheese. And a baggie of cereal. Nowhere near the healthiest, but it helps him have that moment of peace and predictability in the middle of his day.” — Christine U.
“French toast, cut up and put in a thermos, strawberries cut the way he likes, Go-gurt and apple juice. This must be the same every day. I have offered to come have lunch with him and bring him McDonald’s as a special treat ,and he says no.” — Michelle C.
“Unfortunately, lunchtime is very boring. I send basically the same food every single day. We just send what works because school lunches are not a good time for us to try new things. I’d rather know that my child isn’t starving during the day.” — Lindsay S.
We hope these responses from parents in our Mighty community highlight that you aren’t alone. Martin told The Mighty both selective eating and severe selective eating in children are becoming more and more common. She encouraged parents who believe their child’s eating is severely selective to seek formal evaluation and treatment with a medical professional.
“You can work with a provider to expand the repertoire of foods your child will accept and also to get guidance on improving mealtime behaviors, as well as how to help your child become more comfortable in busy school lunchrooms,” she said, adding:
In the meantime, pack your child what they will eat even if it seems nontraditional and keep trying to introduce new foods at home. Sometimes you have to introduce a new 20-100 times before a child will eat it, so keep trying… Family meals are one way to help expand a child’s food repertoire.
For more support, we encourage you to reach out to parents in our community by posting a Thought or Question on the site with the hashtag #Parenting. Our community wants to rally around you, no matter what you’re facing today.