This is a guest post from Kirsty at My Home Truths. I love Kirsty's blog due to its honesty and the way she makes you feel like you are a part of her journey. I asked Kirsty to guest post after seeing so many judgemental comments about the lunches other people make in the lunchbox group I admin. You can read more about that here. If you'd like to contribute to Don't Judge My Lunch Series designed to help dispel lunch judgement, get in touch!
Lunchboxes can be viewed through different lenses.
You can concentrate on the health & nutritional value of the food in the lunchbox; you can prioritise the organisation of the lunch box and how easy it is to use; you can spend time creating delicious treats in a quest to encourage kids to eat a wide range of flavours; and you can also create a beautiful feast for the eyes, concentrating on how to entice your kids to try something new.
Of course, the holy grail of lunchboxes (and of Pinterest!) is to find the ultimate combination of all four of these elements.
But how often do you think about a lunchbox in terms of being sensory friendly?
I can say with certainty that my lunchboxes are not all that healthy, practical, tasty or attractive. But they are sensory friendly. Because my eldest son is on the autism spectrum and he doesn’t care about how healthy, practical, tasty or attractive his lunchbox may be.
He just wants the certainty of knowing he’s getting the same thing each day and what he’s getting will meet his sensory needs.
Why a sensory lunchbox?
When you think about it, eating is a highly sensory experience.
All of your senses are engaged.
You can see the food. You can smell the food. You can touch the food. You can hear the crunch of the food. Culminating, of course, in tasting the food.
For most of us, all this sensory input adds to the experience of eating. It is part of the whole package – all of the senses come together to create a feeling of culinary delight.
But for many kids, all this sensory input can be too much to process and can completely overwhelm them. Instead of being able to enjoy their meal, they often refuse to eat, unable to get past the sensory sensitivity that is causing them so much distress.
In these cases, all you can do is try to identify the source of the sensory overload and work with your child to address the issue or learn to avoid that food altogether.
Here are just some examples of sensory sensitivity in action:
Smell: The overpowering smell of a meal can be just too much. For instance, my son cannot cope with the smell of parmesan cheese which has caused some issues when eating out over the years as he would be disturbed even if someone on another table ordered it. Odours nearby can also distract from the eating experience – there may be nothing wrong with their own meal, but the smell of something in the vicinity can suddenly make their own food unpalatable.
Sound: The sounds associated with eating in a particular location can also cause problems. When younger, my kids would eat their lunch under the school COLA, a structure that seems to echo and amplify the many sounds of the school yard. It was too loud for them to bear. So there were days when they wouldn’t eat at all, to avoid having to sit in the COLA and experience that feeling of auditory overload.
Look & Feel: The look and feel of certain foods can also be overwhelming. I know of kids who will only ever accept food of a particular colour or texture – anything else would send them into sensory meltdown. My own son prefers crunchy foods – so, if I’m lucky, he might occasionally give uncooked carrot a try but I’ve never been able to get him to tolerate cooked carrot. He just cannot cope with the texture.
Taste: And then, of course, we come to taste. Everyone has their own preferences but kids with sensory sensitivities often prefer bland tastes and avoid food with too much spice, heat, seasoning or strong flavour. In fact, it’s a running joke with many autism parents that most of our kids would eat chicken nuggets everyday if they could. I know my son would!
You may feel overwhelmed yourself after considering all these elements. However, not every child has sensory sensitivities and, even when they do, they may not be sensitive in every area. Looking closer at the sensory needs of your child may help you create a lunchbox that will better satisfy them. And in some cases, creating a sensory lunchbox can even help your kids remain calm throughout the entire school day.
Creating a sensory lunchbox
My son’s sensory system is largely under-sensitive, which means he has to work harder to get the sensory response he craves. To help him out, I give him lots of things to crunch, which means his mouth gets a good workout. The act of chewing something hard gives him the sensory input that he craves – which, in turn, helps keep him calm.
My son’s lunchbox is pretty much the same every single day. He doesn’t like surprises (unless I include something full of sugar or chocolate – then I’d hear no complaints!). I’m the first to admit this is not a “healthy” lunchbox but it’s full of items that he will actually eat and it also addresses his key sensory need.
Starting clockwise from the bottom:
Apple: An apple is included in his lunch box every day for crunch. It is the only fruit he will eat (and he consumes it for fruit break at school so I know he actually eats it).
Cheese Twists: Another treat to provide sensory feedback via crunch.
Sandwich: My son has a vegemite sandwich every day. Unlike the crunch sought in some of his other lunchbox items, my son insists on the softest white bread possible for his sandwich and even gets me to soften it in the microwave it in the morning to achieve maximum softness. Go figure!
Muesli bar: There are little health benefits with this item (obviously!) but it again provides crunch.
Uncooked pasta: A small packet of uncooked pasta does wonders in helping him achieve calm as it is one of the hardest items you can possibly chew. It’s a cheap and easy way to provide reliable sensory support and gives him something to munch on throughout the school day.
Lamington: We happened to have a few lamington fingers left over so I decided to pop one in his lunchbox as a treat (he’s had these before and loves them).
Water bottle (not illustrated): Thank goodness he likes drinking water. But he likes it cold so once it’s no longer cold enough for him, he will often stop drinking it. But it’s better than nothing!
Further information about sensory sensitivity
Every child will have different sensory needs so it’s worth considering these before developing your own sensory lunch box.
As a starting point, take stock of their diet and consider the following questions:
- What types of food do they prefer? Identify the foods they most like eating.
- Do they have a definite preference for hard or soft textures?
- Do they seek out or avoid hot, spicy or highly seasoned food?
- Do they like food of certain colours?
- Does their behaviour improve or decline after eating certain foods?
- Are they a picky eater?
- Are they easily distracted when eating?
- Do they regularly abruptly stop eating and leave their meal half finished?
The answers to these questions could point in the direction of a sensory sensitivity but an occupational therapist would need to be consulted to undertake a proper clinical assessment.
In any case, I think it’s worthwhile to look at developing sensory lunchboxes for your kids. At a minimum, it will encourage them to try a greater variety of foods based on their sensory preferences. And it might also help keep them calm and focused while at school. That’s a win/win for me!
So that’s an introduction to the anatomy of a sensory lunch box. Have you ever considered your child’s sensory needs when preparing their lunch?
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