School lunch and the sensory kid

by Robin (noteverstill) on September 20, 2011

Oh wise ones, veteran parents who have trod this path ahead of me, I beg your wisdom.

My oldest kid just started kindergarten, which means I have a kazallion school lunches to pack in coming years. And she’s making it impossible. Or rather, her sensory sensitivities interfere with all normal methods. Let’s discuss.

Buy hot lunch!

Well, that would be the easiest, wouldn’t it? But I’d be spending money for her to starve, because the first week they served grilled cheese, hot dog “on a bun” (why is that specified?), and pizza; the second week they served mac and cheese, turkey sandwiches, and pizza; and the third week I stopped looking at the lunch calendar because who am I kidding? I realized this will never be an option for us (with this child). She doesn’t eat a single one of those foods. Stop this line of thought, Robin. You’re wasting your time.

Girl does not eat bread (except challah with butter), melty cheese, any meat product (and not for any ethical reasons), or any pizza that doesn’t come from Sole D’Italia (plain cheese, obviously) in Ashton. Awesome.

Maybe it’s easier to approach this another way, and tell you what she does like. It’s a very short list, so this won’t take long.

The girl-approved food list

Category #1aFresh fruit: Strawberries, sliced apple, or mango. Sometimes grapes. Apple cannot be whole—or mushy. Most melon is okay, as long as it’s 100% seedless. Fruit, except apple, must be cold.

Category #1bApplesauce: But for the love of all that is holy, there had better be no brown dots.

Category #2a—Cheese with crackers: By cheese, know that I mean only specifically a two-year-aged white cheddar, and by crackers I mean only Triscuits.

Category #2b—Cheese without crackers, also known as strips cheese: That’s a heaping bowl of shredded cheese, straight up, with a spoon.

Category #3—Buttered noodles: Every day. They are, I’m pretty sure, more essential than oxygen.

Category #4—Other foodish things I think of as dry goods: These might be Cheez-its or Pirate’s Booty. Assume that they’re delicious and fairly useless nutritionally.

Category #5—Beverages: She’ll drink milk or apple juice or water. The juice or water must be cold. The milk—this is fun—must be icy cold and non-visible. If she can see her milk, she goes into this epic blotchy-faced sensory overload where the visual and tactile information circuits get crossed and she basically goes insane for about three minutes. So the milk that the school provides for free in those squat little cartons with the huge, look-into-the-abyss diamond openings? Nuh-uh.

The challenges

This was all much easier up until last month, because her daycare provided both refrigeration and microwave access. Kindergarten provides…a locker. I used to send her milk in an insulated plastic cup inside a beer cozy, and it stayed cold enough. But the plastic only had to keep it cold until it found its home in the fridge. Plastic is not insulating enough to survive the dreaded locker. So I bought those Foogo insulated metal canteens with the sports straw opening, essential to continuity of non-visibility. But the canteen makes the milk taste like metal, I’m told. And now she won’t drink milk at school.

What about her fruit and cheese that must stay cold to meet her standards? Also in insulated Foogo bowls—that also make everything taste like metal. To mitigate that problem I’ve been lining them with disposable plastic sandwich bags, but that is a pretty ridiculous way to use a reusable bowl, isn’t it? Interestingly, those same Foogos, when used to keep her life-sustaining noodles warm, do not taint the buttery goodness. It’s a cold issue, but not a hot one. Or mango is more metal-absorbent than ziti. I don’t know—but isn’t that part obvious?

Help me!!!!!!!

So here’s where I beg for your insights. I know many of you face sensory concerns in your own families too, and while each of our kids manifests those concerns in different ways, I’m counting on your greater experience to see me through my lunch-packing crisis. What tips and tricks do you have to offer, you brilliant people, you?

It should be noted that Robin will eat almost anything at all for lunch, if only you’ll pack it for her. If she’s still able to think coherently after her three kids’ lunches are packed, she blogs at The Not-Ever-Still Life, and can also be found on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter.

Cheese photograph, via Creative Commons license, is from I Believe I Can Fry.

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Suzie Phipps September 20, 2011 at 11:34 am

Couple of quick thoughts – I too have one kiddo with oral sensory issues that takes only white foods to school. He eats generally waffles and crackers, occasionally chicken nuggets (certain brands only and when he deems the entire bag not “stinky” – whatever that actually means in his little brain), and of course water in a bottle. He’s ventured out to colorful goldfish and regular goldfish, but that’s the extent of his lunch. He seems to have given up his green crunchy bars which were always a good source of a boost mid-day – oh, and he’s eight. He takes whatever floats his bost for lunch that day, and I’ve told teachers not to make him eat anything he doesn’t want to, but have also told him that it’s his choice what to eat. He packs his own now, but in K and 1st I helped him out. For the water, try sending a cup with a lid and maybe she can get cold water from the fountain. Don’t have any tricks (although can’t wait to see if there are some good ones floating around out there), but we decided long ago to shift our approach. We knew that he wasn’t likely to get much nutrition out of that meal, so we are always sure to send a snack for the actual snack time, and to look at lunch as a second snack. He comes home and has another snack (I try to get protein into him then) but his main meals are breakfast and dinner. Do what you can to get her a mid-day boost, but you might consider shifting away from “lunch” in the traditional sense and towards get her to eat anything that you can for a mid-day snack. It worked for us and he’s growing and thriving in school. Still doesn’t eat anything that’s not white, but hey, he’s growing and thriving.

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Robin (noteverstill) September 22, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Thanks for that approach, Suzie!

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aimee @ smilingmama September 20, 2011 at 1:10 pm

We don’t have these issues, but I’m wondering if maybe a Bento style box with lots of smaller compartments might be a good idea… we have had a Laptop Lunch Bento box for over 2 years…it’s a little pricey but is awesome and has been worth the money for us. There are 4 containers so you could have a container of cheese strips, a container of butter noodles, a container of fruit, a container of applesauce. I fill the water bottle with ice cubes, but maybe you could freeze it overnight so it would melt but still be ice cold by lunchtime? Plus, a frozen drink + ice pack (or 2!) would keep the entire thing pretty cold. (The actual bento box goes into an insulated, zippered sleeve) GOOD LUCK!

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Robin (noteverstill) September 22, 2011 at 2:00 pm

I looked at those but do they leak between compartments? Like… would applesauce runoff end up in the cheese area? Because that would be an issue…

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Lisa September 20, 2011 at 1:19 pm

my new kindergartner (no sensory issues, but lots of general pickiness) and I came up with a decent compromise. I will buy what she wants (within school guidelines – must have protein, bread, and a fruit or veggie) she packs her own lunches for the week on Sundays (with supervision of course).

So far, three weeks in we’ve had two weeks straight of turkey sandwiches or roll ups, string cheese and an apple. And just this week she’s decided lunchables are the way to go. But I refuse to buy those so she eats Ritz and cheddar cheese cubes with an apple every day (and some turkey lunchmeat since it’s the only meat she will eat).

The school supplies milk, but no refrigeration for lunches. Lock and Lock boxes are great for keeping items separate without mixing.

So long as she eats it who cares if the menu doesn’t change every day (or even every week).

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Robin (noteverstill) September 22, 2011 at 2:01 pm

Yeah, I’ve come to that conclusion, too. You can live on five foods plus a multivitamin, right????

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Jessica Haney September 20, 2011 at 3:30 pm

I’ll look forward to hearing more replies and learning from you all on this. Thank you for sharing your challenges. It’s really helpful to hear. As for bread, there is so much more gluten in today’s bread than in what our ancestors ate, and so many more people have gluten issues than realize it, maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that she shuns the bun. I think I really did my health in during my grain-glutton days! I assume your appointment schedule is probably already heavy, but I do know some therapists (including osteopaths and craniosacral therapists) and nutritionists/holistic health counselors who work with kids on food issues.

Maybe if you keep putting out small amounts of fresh veggies on her plate at every meal at home eventually she might warm to some and then you can add those…? And I always go with leftovers. Does she eat meals at home? But again, your temperature requirements are hardcore. I don’t know what to do about that! Good luck! Keep us posted!

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Robin (noteverstill) September 22, 2011 at 2:04 pm

We offer tastes, all the time — and she will do just that much — taste. And then she goes back to her usual foods. I’d love to see some more veggies in her (i should add she’ll eat peas and corn – frozen only – not fresh or canned) but as a limited diet goes, this one has going for it that she eats real food, not junk. She doesn’t like candy except for lollipops and she doesn’t like chocolate, so she probably still eats better than most kids. Silver lining, right…?

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Kristin September 25, 2011 at 8:25 pm

I lived on nothing but turkey sandwiches–NOT squishy, smashed, or warm–and milk and apples–both cold–all the way through high school graduation. My mom got me a larger lunchbox (we called it my organ donor lunch box b/c it’s the same size as the ones hospitals use for, well, that). She’d put one of those freezer packs in it, and used a Tervis Tumbler style cup for the milk. Give them a call b/c it looks like they now have 8-oz cups with design inserts (so the cups aren’t clear). If she was feeling brave, she’d also sometimes freeze grapes and stick those in my lunchbox. They’d usually be thawed by lunchtime and helped keep everything else cold. And good luck with your daughter!

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Stacy Kravitz September 26, 2011 at 1:11 pm

I have a three and a half year old with special needs and I’ve been packing him a lunch for over a year now. First of all, I thoroughly understand your worry over whether she is getting what she needs to be healthy and function, your guilt over her not eating a well-rounded diet, and the stress that this puts on all of you. I’m HERE with you.

Yes, she can live on a few foods and a vitamin. I’m sure you have talked with her doctor and she’s doing fine otherwise. A LOT of kids are picky and a LOT of kids have oral sensory issues. The hard part is that what works for one kid doesn’t for another, so it’s all a lot of trial and FAILURE.

I really like the idea of having her help pack the lunch. Sometimes when kids make their own choice, they are more likely to stick with it.

I have found a lot of good lunch boxes, thermos-type things, and food containers online, seek out whatever you need to keep her food at the temperatures she likes.

Food idea? How does she like bars? There are a lot of organic and less-additive ones out there now. I really like Cascadian Farms, and Target sells these things called Monkey Bars which have probiotics in them too!

As for the same foods day in and day out … my son gets applesauce, cubed deli-turkey, apple slices, grapes (fruit, much?) daily. He used to get cheese but that got nixed with the diagnosis of casein-sensitivity.

You are doing a tremendously good job by seeking out ideas and info. Keep up the good work ! and, good luck!

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MyLifeAsItIs September 26, 2011 at 10:46 pm

I’m late in commenting here, but ditto on the ‘treat it like a snack and getbthe nutrition at breakfast and dinner’ as well as let her help pack. From my teaching years you’d be surprised at how much kids just throw out anyways :)

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