All the senses can be challenged when a child is sitting to eat a meal: smell, taste, vision, and so on. Add to that the unfamiliarity of a restaurant, ambient noise from recorded music to dishes clashing and doors opening, and eating out with kids who have sensory issues can be quite a challenge. In fact, many children with sensory processing issues find that “kid friendly” restaurants with their video games, upbeat music, bright lights, and babies crying are extremely unfriendly for them. Then again, your child with sensory processing disorder may adore such restaurants but become completely overstimulated in them!
What’s a parent to do? Restaurants are not completely avoidable, and of course, we want kids with sensory issues to develop the life skill of being able to tolerate dining out and even enjoy it. Here are some strategies:
Use self-calming techniques before going to the restaurant. Calm your child’s system and help him to self-regulate his activity level, mood, and focus in preparation for an intense sensory experience. Use techniques you know work for him. Sensory diet activities such as heavy work, getting deep pressure against the skin, and listening to calming and focusing music for just a few minutes before entering a restaurant can help tremendously.
Use the restroom at home before you leave. The bathroom at a restaurant may be a calming place or a stressful one with hand dryers and flushing toilets that are especially loud.
Reduce the stimulation level. The less intense the sensory environment, the less distressed the sensory child will be. Look for restaurants that offer a quieter, less intense sensory experience, and try not to go at their busiest time. You might call ahead to find out when their typical “rush” time is so you can come a little earlier or later.
Be choosy about seating and ambience. Ask to be seated in the quietest part of the restaurant, away from the door, the kitchen, and bathrooms where sounds, smells, and sights are minimized. Back rooms, patios, and porches are often quieter as well.
Offer sound protection if your child has auditory processing issues. Consider allowing the child to use earplugs to mask some of the more unsettling sounds such as people chewing food, high pitched squeals of other children, and the sound of cutlery scraping against plates or tables being bussed. If you’re in a restaurant and loud music is being played in order to provide atmosphere, you might ask the waitress if the volume can be turned down a little or if softer music might be played—she may say no, but it’s worth asking. In fact, the other patrons might appreciate lowering the volume of the music too!
Bring a scent kit or pleasantly scented item to mask smells. Competing restaurant aromas can be very intense for a sensory child. You might carry a scented item he or she finds pleasant and calming, whether it’s a fruit-scented set of markers, a plastic bottle of sweet-smelling hand lotion, or even a scent kit: a plastic bag containing a piece of fabric sprinkled with an essential oil (vanilla and lavender are often good choices). Offer the pleasant-smelling item to your child to sniff when the smells become overwhelming. Be sure to consult your child about what scents he would find pleasant for masking other smells.
Bring distractions. Offer your child comforting and engaging distractions such as small toys, or crayons and a small coloring book or drawing pad (some restaurants will provide coloring materials). Kid friendly foods such as breadsticks or crackers should be provided right away to keep a small child occupied.
Don’t bring in food from the outside without permission. Check the menu before settling on a restaurant, and if your child is unlikely to eat what is served, feed her before you go. Consider bringing a chewable item such as a chewable pendant or giving her a beverage with a straw to drink from. Both can provide calming input.
Simplify the food. Ask about sauces and mixed textures so the chef can serve plain pasta, a burger without the bun, and so on. If you see a simple menu item incorporated into a dish, ask if you can have a separate serving—a small plate of steamed vegetables, for example.
Take breaks. You may need to take some sensory breaks during the meal to go to a quiet, unoccupied bathroom or back room of the restaurant, or to walk outside to get some calming input before returning to the restaurant. If possible, take turns with another adult, giving your child breaks by walking her around.
If you apply these practical tips and choose your restaurants carefully, the experience will be much more enjoyable for everyone. After you have finished eating out, be sure to praise your child for any specific skills he used to better manage the experience. Point out to him that you know it can be stressful for him to eat in restaurants and you are proud of how hard he worked to sit still, eat, and so on—whatever is a challenge for him. In this way, you will help your child learn sensory smarts: the ability to recognize what his body needs sensory-wise and to advocate for himself effectively and in a socially acceptable way.