PARENT QUESTION: How Do I Handle Sensory-Related Food Rejection?

“I am torn on the food issue. My son is very limited on what he will eat and my daughter (both are autistic) is beginning to reject more food. Should I just make the one meal and that’s dinner take it or leave it, or should I just make them their own meals that I know they like? I don’t know how much to push. My pediatrician said to really try to push it but I want to know what your 4 year old self would tell your mom (assuming you had sensory/food challenges).”

This is a BIG issue for me, always has been. A recent ex (with whom I’m still friends) once said about my pickiness: “At the imaginary dinner in ‘Hook’ you’d be unimagining food.”

It’s true. I can’t be anywhere near Indian food, because the smells make me so anxious. I once had a minor meltdown in an Indian restaurant, where a friend was celebrating their birthday with dinner and drinks. I had to leave, compose myself, rub a bit of my favorite perfume under my nose, and then rejoin the group. I was an internalized mess for the rest of the night, however, and mostly non-verbal. If I could have unimagined that Indian food… I would have. There are several other specific foods I can’t handle seeing or biting into, either.

Growing up, my mom did make me a separate meal most of the time. For the longest time, all I would eat were “minute steaks” (frozen beef patties), white rice, and green beans or broccoli… maybe mac & cheese if I was feeling squirrelly. My mom would make what we called “minute steak sandwiches” and put a patty on two slices of bread with mustard & ketchup and then slice it in half. It was pretty easy to make alongside whatever she was cooking for the night and I don’t think added too much extra time (but I could be wrong), since she just needed to boil two pots of water for the rice and green beans or broccoli, plus throw the patty in a skillet for a few minutes.

My family had the “One Bite Rule” – I had to take one bite to try it and if I didn’t like it, I didn’t have to eat it. As long as the trust was there in my not having to eat more than one bite if I didn’t like it, I was willing to try almost always. Certain things are just too much for me, due to texture and/or smell, though, and I KNEW (and know, since this is still a big issue for me) I wouldn’t like it. Brussel sprouts are a prime example, the scent and texture are too much for me, so I have never and will never try one. I do not like mushrooms, never have or will (but I do like truffle cheddar, oddly enough).

Presentation can be an important part of food for those with sensory issues. This anecdote isn’t about a texture situation, but I am lactose intolerant, so ice cream is not part of my world (most of the time). Friends took me to dinner a few years ago for my birthday and the restaurant wanted to bring me a bowl of ice cream with a candle to celebrate. My boyfriend at the time asked if they could substitute scoops of mashed potatoes (potatoes are my favorite food item) for the ice cream. They did! They even used the ice cream scoop to serve them. Most of my friends had NO idea it wasn’t ice cream I was served until I told them why I was grinning so widely and getting flappy. Maybe fun things like that can help?

A friend of mine was telling me today about how her husband can’t stand the texture of any fruit, but loves the taste of a lot of it. Their solution? Smoothies. Maybe figure out how to sneak in veggies and other healthy foods into meals with which they are comfortable. There are several books on this subject, which offer ways to “trick” kids into eating healthy (there’s a good recipe floating around which involves blending green veggies into a healthy brownie mix, for example).

Another potential solution is to plan meals with your kids. Pick a day each week to sit down and plan dinners/meals, as a family, for the next week. Maybe even make a visual chart or write it on a calendar so everyone knows what to expect. Feeling comfortable and safe is a big deal, so knowing what to expect can allow for kids to process situations ahead of time. Give the kids options to choose from, based on what they like and what is healthy. Give them each alternating days and then the family gets to choose together for the seventh day. Let them know they can’t individually repeat meals (one kid can’t pick the same thing twice in a week, but if they individually choose to have chicken nuggets and salad that week, they can). This may also help them work together on discussing options and making decisions as a team.

As long as your kids are getting a balanced diet, I don’t really see the need to push too hard. When it comes to sensory issues, it can be traumatic for younger kids to be forced to experience and process situations which go against their ability to be comfortable and feel safe. It’s like if you were to attend a meeting at work, in a room with a low heater on during an already warm day, but your boss won’t turn it off because they like it warm. It won’t necessarily harm you, but it is going to make you uncomfortable, distracted, and drain your mental energy having to put up with that situation. You’re also not going to be too pleased overall with your employer. Being forced to endure sensory overload or uncomfortable sensory situations without just cause really doesn’t make sense in the long run. In short: pick your battles. Is it worth your kid melting down over a meal?

At my request, my mom has weighed in on this post:

“My only concern was making sure you had nutrition. Many people have food preferences, allergies, likes and dislikes, including me. I could have fixed baby hamburger soup for the family to honor your preference or I could fix you baby hamburger soup and the rest of us another meal that we preferred. Most of your preferences were simple to fix, taking very little extra time. 

If you think of food as fuel for the body, does it really matter if the whole family eats the same thing or something different? Or even that we eat at the same time. While family meals can be a bonding experience, there are many other ways to bond. Putting so much emphasis on meals as a family requirement may even add to food disorders, such as feeding your emotions, food as an escape or a comfort… or not eating due to negative feelings surrounding meal time. Forcing everyone to eat the same food at the same time is more of a power play, asserting authority, than it is nurturing. Chose your battles is my motto for life…”

(As an aside: “baby hamburger soup” is our name for Campbell’s Sirloin Burger Chunky Soup… because it looks like the soup has baby hamburger patties in it. To this day, this is still one of my favorite foods and was one of the main staples of my diet, as a kid.)