Sensory food aversions plague even the families that embrace eating foods of all shapes, colors and cultures. Read on to learn how to save your sanity at mealtime without making different meals.
- 6 Ways to improve your child's diet
- 1. Include your child in meal planning and grocery shopping.
- 2. Stop making multiple meals to cater to their needs.
- 3. Buy foods they can make themselves.
- 4. Accommodate your child's sensory needs.
- 5. Let them spit out food they don't like.
- 6. Understand sensory food aversions.
6 Ways to improve your child’s diet
Even families with kids that eat everything, have eaters who don’t like what’s for dinner. Everyone is unique and likes different things, so don’t stress too much over your child needing to like what the whole family likes.
There are ways to expand your child’s diet, even with sensory food aversions, that don’t include making two different meals all the time.
1. Include your child in meal planning and grocery shopping.
Letting your child choose a meal or three each week gives you an idea of their current food interests, while allowing them some control over their meals. Children don’t have the opportunity to make many choices about their life, so they will appreciate being involved in this one.
Shopping for groceries is an enriching experience that takes them out of their usual environment and encourages them to be aware of what food exists. If you have the patience for it, let them select the food items they can reach and put them into the basket.
Some stores have child-sized shopping carts, but they can also be purchased online for less than $80. This is one of my favorite past-times with my dad, and you might be surprised what your child chooses the more comfortable they grow with grocery shopping!
If you want a child-friendly grocery list, paste pictures of your most common items onto some index cards, punch a hole in the corner, and make your list by having your kid hook them on a carabiner (or similar round hook).
2. Stop making multiple meals to cater to their needs.
My cousin has nine kids, eight of which she cooks for, and there are about three adults living in her house right now (including myself). In a neurodivergent household, everyone has different tastes and sensory needs. She used to cater to her children’s individual meal preferences, but she stopped and never went back.
It works like this:
- She creates a meal plan with the help of a child.
- She grocery shops for that meal plan, as well as snacks and meals the children can make themselves.
- She makes one meal for dinner, per her meal plan.
If someone doesn’t like what’s for dinner, they can make their own food. In the freezer, she’ll keep frozen chicken nuggets or strips, plus snacks like Bagel Bites, Hot Pockets, and corn dogs. There will also be ingredients for sandwiches, nachos, pita chips and hummus, and instant ramen noodles.
They are all capable of making something for themselves or getting assistance from an older sibling.
3. Buy foods they can make themselves.
By six years of age, a child should generally be able to pour their own cereal. Some toddlers in Montessori school may know how to make some meals on their own as well. Use this to your advantage.
Teach your child how to make some meals they like, by themselves, as is appropriate for their age and capabilities. This does not mean that you should expect them to feed themselves from here on out. It means that you are making one dinner, and they can choose to make something else if they don’t like it.
If your sensory sensitive child is incapable of making food themselves, then make it easy on yourself. For the child who only eats Lunchables, buy a large charcuterie tray and divvy it up into containers. Or buy extra “build your lunch box” foods and have them select something that way.
For the child who only eats chicken nuggets, who can use a microwave or air fryer with adult supervision, buy a large bag of chicken nuggets and create smaller TV dinner-like portions using sandwich bags.
4. Accommodate your child’s sensory needs.
If the above options don’t work for your child, accommodate their sensory needs without making a different meal altogether.
These are reasonable mealtime accommodations:
- Setting a bowl full of cooked noodles aside without tomato sauce.
- Leaving some meat without sauce.
- Making a casserole dish of lasagna where half is made with ricotta and the other half is made only with shredded cheese.
- Cooking some veggies separate from a meat dish in a small pan, for a veggie-only eater.
These are not appropriate or expected mealtime accommodations:
- Making spaghetti and chicken alfredo.
- Offering two different meats for spaghetti.
Going out of your way to cook something for your child, regardless of sensory needs, ignores your own needs. Many parents of children with food aversions don’t set boundaries with their kids because they think they can’t, but that’s a double standard.
There’s a major difference between accommodating your child’s preferences and catering to them. Obviously, if your child isn’t old enough to learn how to make themselves anything yet, you will have to help them out. But that doesn’t mean you have to go out of your way to make another meal.
5. Let them spit out food they don’t like.
When they’re babies, children spit out food they don’t like and everyone laughs. Then they turn three, five, nine or thirteen years old, and spitting out food that gives them the ick is considered rude. The child gets reprimanded for it.
Spitting out bad-tasting things is instinctual. It’s a natural reaction to disgust and part of the body’s primitive defense mechanism that is meant to keep us safe. So is gagging.
Culturally speaking, spitting out food is generally perceived as disgusting or rude because it looks gross to the people around you; no one wants to see it. This is a wonderful opportunity to teach them how to spit things out into a napkin or baby wipe, instead of back onto their plate or into their hand (or yours).
Validating their dislike is crucial to their autonomy and development. It helps teach them to trust themselves, instead of downplaying themselves because you dismissed their experience (gaslighting).
6. Understand sensory food aversions.
Above are proposed solutions to improve your child’s diet without adding more work to your plate. These alternatives are rarely discussed in other articles about sensory food issues. But understanding sensory aversions will help you understand why I chose not to regurgitate the typical advice surrounding this topic.
I am autistic myself and ate the same foods for 16 years of my life. My diet didn’t expand in the slightest until I moved in with my dad. I loved tacos and rice, so he made turkey tacos with rice…and even tilapia tacos! I went from eating only beef cheeseburgers to eating chicken burgers and turkey burgers.
My new favorite became turkey burgers with lots of savory seasonings. Helping him prepare the meat in the kitchen to cook on the grill outside reduced my aversion to raw meat (though I still can’t touch it without tongs or gloves). I also took a liking to salmon.
His rules were simple: I didn’t have to eat the meal if I didn’t like it, but he always made sure there was something in the meal that I did like. I hate mushrooms (and have since found out I’m highly allergic) so I’d just eat the sides whenever he made main dishes that included those. I always had to at least try it.
Why sensory sensitive children prefer the same foods
The reason kids, and adults, with sensory food aversions want the same food, every single time is because it’s the same — every. single. time:
- Same temperature
- Same taste
- Same texture
- Same smell
It’s predictable. It’s the same, always. Grapes are not the same every time. Every single grape is different, like snowflakes.
Triscuits are the same, every single time. String cheese is always the same. McNuggets are mostly the same, and you at least know which fries are going to be which textures from experience and pattern recognition.
If you never make something the same way twice, your sensory-sensitive child may struggle to develop trust in the food you make.
Sensory aversions of any kind are not mere dislikes. Negative sensory input triggers the pain receptors in neurodivergent brains. Long-term pain increases anger and irritability. Sensory sensitivities could be a hidden meltdown trigger.
For these reasons, it’s worth the effort to find ways to meet your child’s food needs, while not compromising your own.
How is food managed in your household? Share about it in the comments below.