The festive season is a great excuse to get loved ones together, and food is arguably a mainstay of these celebrations. However, food can represent anxiety and discomfort for those of us with food sensitivities of the sensory or dietary variety. If you’re hosting an event or just contributing a dish or two, it pays to be mindful of how food can affect someone and showing that you’re committed to making the day inclusive for every guest. The setting is also important to consider, as certain sounds, sights, and smells can trigger a person’s sensory sensitivities.
In this article, we’re talking about the different types of sensory and dietary challenges that you should be aware of. We’ll also provide some tips to help you create a festive celebration that’s safe and merry for everyone!
What causes a food aversion?
There are many conditions that can cause food aversions. These include Autism Spectrum Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder, Sensory Processing Sensitivity, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Down Syndrome, and Avoidant-Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). Other conditions that impact on someone’s development, such as being born prematurely, can also create food aversions. If you aren’t sure if someone may experience a food aversion or not, don’t be afraid to ask them or their caregiver – they’ll appreciate the thought!
What does a food aversion look like?
A food aversion is a condition where a person experiences a sensory overreaction to certain food. As a result, they avoid and experience anxiety when confronted with the problem food. In some cases, a person with a food aversion may gag, vomit, or experience a ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response when the food is presented. Specific aversions could include the texture, taste, colour, consistency, and smell of certain foods. Food aversions are most common in children, but adults can be affected by them, too.
How to accommodate people with food aversions
If you are unsure about someone’s food aversion, just ask them what they can and cannot eat. Ensure that dishes are served without the problem food – for example, if someone does not enjoy foods that are runny, serve the pudding alone and provide the custard in a jug on the side. That way, other guests can still have the custard, but the person with the food aversion can enjoy the pudding without worrying about the textural trigger. If someone doesn’t like the texture of jelly, you don’t have to scrap the trifle – you could provide a jelly-free trifle or another dessert altogether, like a pavlova.
In more extreme cases, the mere presence of the food could be overwhelming for the person due to the smell or appearance. Eliminating it from the menu altogether might be the best course of action. Alternatively, covering it up or storing it elsewhere might be OK with the person – again, it’s best to check with them in advance to avoid making them uncomfortable on the day.
People who have been living with a food aversion for a while may be well-versed in managing it. One of their strategies might be preparing and bringing their own food; it might reduce the uncertainties and anxiety associated with attending an event where food is served.
Under no circumstances should someone be forced or pressured to eat the food that is affecting them; unfortunately, the common misconception that someone with a food aversion is just a ‘picky eater’ can lead to these interactions. However, such behaviours only serve to cause further distress and are not OK.
Allergies and restrictions
Types of allergies and restrictions
Certain conditions or illnesses can lead to dietary exclusions, while some people live with mild to severe (and even life-threatening) allergies and sensitivities. If you will be hosting or providing food for a celebration, it’s essential to be aware of who’s coming along and if they have any food-related restrictions.
For example, some people with autoimmune conditions need to avoid inflammatory food groups – such as nightshades (tomatoes, chilies, capsicums, potatoes, paprika, eggplant, and many more), as this food group can worsen their symptoms. Another example is celiac disease, which means that someone has an immune reaction to eating gluten, leading to fatigue, difficulties with nutrient absorption, and digestive issues.
Food allergies are quite common – everything from peanuts to certain food colourings can be allergens.
How to accommodate people with allergies and restrictions
To cater for restrictions and allergies, be sure to separate certain foods and provide individual serving utensils for each to avoid contaminating the ‘safe’ food with the problem food. Similarly, while preparing the food, be mindful of cross-contamination: be sure to use clean kitchenware when preparing safe food after preparing allergens. Even trace amounts of a problem food can pose a threat to someone with a severe allergy or intolerance.
Clearly mark all dishes so that people know which ones are safe to eat. Also, let your guests know about the allergy and ask them to be mindful of cross-contamination when they’re heaping their plates.
If you are gifting food to your guests, such as shortbread cookies or candy, be sure to check that they can actually eat it. Common and basic ingredients like flour, gelatine, eggs, sugar, and food colourings can be problematic for some. Asking recipients about their dietary restrictions and then tailoring your recipe to accommodate these will make your gift thoughtful and well-received.
What about the environment or setting can trigger someone?
Food is not the only element of an event that should be inclusive. The setting and environment provide innumerable stimuli, some of which can contribute to overwhelm and distress for someone with sensory processing issues. Aspects of the setting, such as sights, smells, sounds, and temperature, should be considered.
How to accommodate people with sensitivities
Create a sensory-friendly setting for your celebration by considering the following:
- Minimise external sounds – turn off the television, radio, and music to avoid competing and confusing sounds. Similarly, if possible, sit somewhere away from excessive road noise.
- Choose a space without very bright or flickering lights.
- Check that the chosen setting is not affected by any strong smells, such as fragrance diffusers and plants.
- Consider also reducing the amount of furniture or decorations in people’s immediate vicinity to help with crowding. Seat people far enough apart that they have room to move. This can also help to mitigate concerns associated with misophonia, where someone is affected emotionally by common sounds such as breathing or chewing.
- Try to serve the food at a time consistent with the person’s normal routine. This may help to reduce the stress associated with attending an event.
- Lastly, in Australia, the festive season tends to coincide with the hottest time of year, so consider temperature regulation; drastic temperature changes can overwhelm people with sensory difficulties
Keep in mind that many of the above stimuli are largely subjective as to whether or not they are disrupting or disturbing to someone. If in doubt, check with the guest or their caregiver.