Is it “picky eating” or is it “sensory eating” we are observing when we see children and some adults not wanting to eat certain foods? This is a subject close to my heart. I have travelled the journey as a sensory eater myself, both as a child and an adult, I walked through the same scenario with one of my sons and now with my grandchildren.

What is Sensory Eating?

You might ask? Well, when we eat, we are exposed to a varying number of sensory inputs. These can be visual, or smell, temperature, taste or texture.

Some children can be over or even under-responsive to the sensory elements of food. This can lead to a reaction of gagging at the sight or smell of certain foods. It can also mean spitting out or vomiting food.

The children who experience this are often labelled as picky, sensitive or selective eaters. As more research is done on how our brain processes the signals that use our senses – we come to realise the difficulty that some children (and adults) face trying to process the sensory aspects of eating.

My Experience

The struggles come with not being able to understand how some people can eat foods that truly made my stomach churn just to look at it, or sometimes smell it, or sometimes just the texture of it. I have become more tolerant with this as I have gotten older. But, I can remember going to friends’ places for meals and being worried they would serve dishes I just knew I couldn’t eat without bringing them back up again. It is a very uncomfortable situation to be in and there was no possible explanation at the time as to why I couldn’t eat what others ate just made it harder.

I can see now as an adult why some people just thought I was a “picky eater” or a very determined disobedient child not even open to trying new things. If you don’t experience what we, “Sensory Eaters” experience of course you have no idea what is happening within our stomachs or our minds as we struggle to understand it ourselves.

I was very fortunate that my mother was a very plain and predictable cook, so I really only struggled when I was out visiting. I didn’t go to restaurants very often at all when I was younger, so that also made it easier for me. My grandchildren have this problem nowadays, and I see their difficulty.

As a young mother, I felt like a complete failure when it came to introducing solid foods to our first son, Ben. He struggled with a lot of different foods even some of the most basic, and some friends and my mother-in-law were very sure if he would just try the way THEY cooked the food he would DEFINITELY like it.

This, of course, didn’t do anything for my confidence as a mother, not even when they did try their way with no success at all, whilst I was quietly relieved, it really didn’t help. You can just imagine how good I finally felt when Anna came along three years later and ate everything, I put in front of her, then Michael and then Daniel, by then I thought Ben just had a sensitive stomach like I thought I had.

I knew as a child there were many foods I couldn’t eat and as an adult, there are still some but a lot fewer, however, there were many more that Ben just couldn’t eat as a child. I knew nothing about “sensory eating” then, no one did, all the professionals I took him to didn’t ever mention it, this was over 40 years ago now.

The advice I got helped but couldn’t really explain it all, because no one knew about “Sensory Eating”. Now today, both Ben and I eat most foods, some, however, you still won’t be able to get me to even try because I seem to have like a sixth sense and know my stomach will reject automatically.

After 47 years of marriage, Rob has finally learnt that if I don’t even want to try something it’s best for both him and me if I don’t try it. Chances are I won’t have a bad response and he doesn’t have to experience that bad response either.

Just this March…

It was funny just this last March, I was in Sydney having dinner with some of our Little Miracles directors, we had all been attending a conference and I was very tired. We all went to a restaurant where the food was quite different and very interesting and exciting for most of us but for me, challenging.

Ben’s wife Nel was with us this particular night. Knowing his journey with food, and having two sensory eaters as children, she helped me out a lot with choosing my food. I ordered what Nel advised because the description and the photo of the dish looked great, so I was feeling confident.

When I was talking to someone and engaged deeply into a conversation, the waiter, bless his heart, placed my meal in front of me up very close and personal. The key thing in this scenario is to remember I was very tired and that definitely could have played into what followed and my reaction.

So I took one look at this meal, and it looked nothing like the picture I had seen, to me it looked like a slimy alien on a plate and I reacted totally involuntarily like I hadn’t reacted to food for probably over 50 years.

Right there in front of my amazing staff I totally freaked out, no loud noises or anything just total internal shock and a look of full-on fear flashed across my whole face. And my whole body shook all over.  Fortunately, Nel knew what had happened and she instantly pulled it away from me and I settled down straight away. I couldn’t believe what had happened. I was totally surprised, and I don’t think even Rob in all our years has seen me react like that but yet, I did at 68 years of age, as if I was a child again.

All of our team at the table thought I was just playing games as we had all been having lots of laughs together, and it wasn’t until they saw how I responded when Nel removed it for me that they knew something was happening for me. Fortunately, I am old enough and have travelled life enough to know who I am, and I am very comfortable with who I am with all the amazing idiosyncrasies that make me my beautiful unique me, just like God designed, warts and all.

Lucky for me, my team of directors were very comfortable and laughed with me at my response, because after all, it was quite funny once the fear factor subsided. One of the best ways of helping your staff treat you with respect is knowing your idiosyncrasies, and not being ashamed of them but showing how you rise above and overcome them. Learn to laugh about yourself, not at yourself but about yourself, there is a big difference.

How did I rise above it in front of everyone? I settled myself down, thanked Nel for her assistance, had a good belly laugh with the girls, and then ate the meal and enjoyed it once Nel had made an adjustment that made it so much more appealing to my senses.

It is wonderful that so much more is known now about our senses and how they affect us all differently, in our favour and sometimes not so much in our favour. Unfortunately, though, there are still a lot of people, young children, teenagers and older, who haven’t yet learnt just how beautiful they are even with their sensory eating challenges.

There are many parents out there doing their absolute best to help the “sensory eater” who others view as “picky eaters” or “spoilt brats” but aren’t understanding their child or receiving the proper support yet need it desperately.

Next time you see children, teenagers or adults (they can usually hide it better) who only like eating particular foods, stop, try and be patient even if you don’t understand it because they deserve it from you. The funny thing is you may need them to be patient with you for something completely different because whether we like it or not, we all have our idiosyncrasies that cause challenges.

We are ALL wonderfully created, complete masterpieces when we appreciate each other’s differences instead of trying to put us all in one basket, we ALL flourish.

Have a look at a post I came across lately, it’s a story that might help many of you whether or not you are a Sensory Eater. Read here.