Top tips for bringing sensory sensitive eaters to the table

Maddie Southall

Many people talk about fussy eaters or picky eating, when really it is more about sensory preferences. Imagine if you were asked to eat a bowl of sand, and told you were fussy because of how that felt for you? The better term for this is sensory sensitivities or sensory preferences.

Cooking for people with sensory sensitivities can be difficult, often making meal times stressful and unpleasant instead of being an enjoyable family experience. However, there are easy ways support people with sensory preferences to be interested in trying new foods. Involving them in the food preparation process, gradually adding new foods into their diet and creating low-stress meal times is essential when cooking for people with sensory preferences, especially those with autism or living with disability. These simple methods can be incorporated into home life to avoid heated arguments and ensure everyone gets the nutrients they need. 

Involving people with sensory preferences in food preparation

One of the best strategies for supporting people with sensory sensitivities is to involve them in the planning and cooking process. This can take the form of helping plan what to cook for the week, shopping for ingredients and prepping the food. This is a great way to help expose them to new foods in low stress environments and maximise the other benefits of creating a meal planner for people with disability.

The SOS Approach to Feeding highlights the importance of eating being seen as an experience that begins long before sitting down for a meal. Since eating is sensory driven, exposing people to these sensations before mealtime can help them become comfortable with new foods, which will be particularly important if cooking for someone with autism. Invite them to examine what the food looks like, smells like, and feels like by encouraging them to handle the food and examine it closely.

Then try to involve them as much as possible in the cooking process, this can be as simple as buttering the bread, stirring the pot or sprinkling the cheese on top of a dish. Occupational Therapist, Dr Ann Kennedy-Behr states that “being involved in the meal preparation instils a sense of pride in what they have helped create which they will likely then want to eat.” This important meal preparation phase will reduce the stress and anxiety around sitting down for the meal and will pique interest in new foods. 

Trying new foods

When it comes to introducing new foods at meal time, a great strategy is to nutrient swap within foods someone with sensory preferences already likes. For example, if they like spaghetti bolognaise, try swapping beef mince for a leaner chicken mince or blending extra veggies in a food processor to add to the sauce. Toning down powerful flavours by reducing or eliminating salt, herbs and spices can also be beneficial.

The article Creating Meals for Picky Eaters, medically reviewed by registered dietician Maya Feller, recommends serving deconstructed meals as a way to address sensory preferences at mealtime. Deconstructed foods like tacos, pizzas, rice paper rolls, or sandwiches allow people to experiment with introducing small amounts of new ingredients into their food. Recipes like this are fantastic for families or groups because each person can tailor the meal towards their own needs.

Similarly, making a meal with a couple of sides that everyone likes, for example, bread or mashed potatoes can alleviate the anxiety of trying new foods. This is an effective way of avoiding overwhelming someone with sensory preferences by trying to incorporate too many new foods at once. It is important to note that encouraging people to try new foods should be viewed as a gradual process instead of an overnight change.

Creating a low-stress mealtime

A great way to embrace this being a gradual process is to relax and enjoy your own meal as a parent or caregiver. This is important as it will create a low stress environment as well as allow those with sensory sensitivities to see new foods being consumed by those around them. This is particularly important for young people, if they see a parent or caregiver eating their fruits and veggies, they will eventually try them too. 

According to an article by the Ellyn Satter Institute, pressuring people with sensory preferences to try new foods is not the solution. The “child sees though even sneaky pressure such as bribes, cheer-leading, and your acting like you love [the food]. He assumes, “if they have to do all that to get me to eat it, it can’t be that good.” Instead, allow them to see caregivers having these foods and they will simply assume that they will eat them someday too.

If cooking for a very young person with sensory preferences, encourage them to put some of the new foods on their plate, or even feed it to their siblings, parents or other caregivers. This will help them become familiar and comfortable with the foods. 

Gradually incorporating new foods

Given the necessary patience, gradually incorporating new foods into the diet of someone with sensory preferences is totally achievable.

Broadening the process of eating a meal to include the planning and preparation stages will help familiarise everyone with the sensory aspects of new foods and make people more comfortable. Cooking deconstructed meals and reducing overpowering flavours and textures will ease the transition of including unfamiliar foods into someone’s diet. Finally, leading by example as a caregiver by eating the foods you make together and ensuring meal times are low pressure is essential. 

Our assistive technology aKin home not only aids in the meal planning process but also has plenty of recipes specifically tailored to sensory preferences and dietary requirements that can be conveniently added to your family’s meal plan. Read more about aKin Home and the NDIS assistive tablet.