Eating with empathy: How to include everyone at mealtime

Assorted fruits and vegetables, some cut into heart shapes, with a cotton candy graphic and a heart-shaped illustration filled with various foods, against a pastel background with scattered hearts.

Perhaps you’ve been there: Enjoying a simple cup of yogurt, when suddenly, the next spoonful you put in your mouth is absolutely revolting — for no reason other than the fact that you can feel the yogurt in your mouth. 

Perhaps there have been days when you’ve forgotten to eat altogether because it simply hadn’t crossed your mind until you’re ten minutes from fainting. 

Or perhaps — the most common case of all — you find yourself without the energy to cook, so you order takeout because it’s the most accessible way to get food in your body.

While these situations might happen to anyone, they are especially common for neurodivergent folks. For people with ADHD and autism, eating can get lost in the wave of suppressed appetite side effects, executive dysfunction, or sensory issues, making mealtimes extremely difficult.

Those with histories of eating disorders also may find mealtimes to be triggering and uncomfortable, and the joy of embarking on a delightful, savory journey is swapped for panic attacks, nausea, or even relapse. 

Many of us have been raised with preconceived notions of what makes food “good” or “bad,” and what our eating and meal prep habits should look like. But people are just as diverse as the recipes, ingredients, and pantries of the world, and we all deserve a more holistic and inclusive approach to how we dine.

Kelley Bligh is the executive director of Culikid, a New York City-based nonprofit that provides inclusive and adaptive culinary programs for people of all abilities — including those with physical limitations, differences in cognitive and emotional processing, and sensory sensitivities.

Cuilkid provides individual food-centric support that helps people meet their goals; whether that’s independence, motor skills practice, improved nutrition, or socialization opportunities. Between our conversations and our culinary creations, Bligh gives us the recipe for more thoughtful approaches to food. 

How to be more inclusive and accessible when it comes to food

Reduce stress in meal prep and grocery shopping

“One of the things we keep in mind is to first be kind to ourselves,” Bligh said. “‘Cooking’ can put a lot of emphasis on raw, fresh, farm-to-table ingredients, which is fine, but would buying pre-cut onions help you cook more easily? What about swapping onions for onion powder?”

Integrating easier, time-saving options, like pre-cut produce or tools that cut down on steps in the kitchen, is a great first step in making food more accessible. 

Meal prep doesn’t just start with the cutting board, though. Grocers have an opportunity to improve the steep costs and overwhelming environments that come with accessing food.

Online grocery shopping, grocery delivery, or even implementing a designated time for sensory-friendly shopping could make a world of difference. This is a great option for those in recovery from eating disorders, as well, embracing more structured, positive experiences to prepare and select foods.

Have neutral conversations about eating, drinking & food in general

Bligh also encourages folks to reframe their understanding of picky eating, refraining from commenting on someone’s dietary restrictions, or even their “table manners.” 

“What looks like ‘picky eating’ can seem just like that — pickiness or not being open-minded,” she said. “But it can also be sensory sensitivities, a sensitive gag reflex, anxiety, dietary restrictions, medical issues, or more. Instead of drawing attention to these things, create a safe space for everyone to experience food however they feel comfortable.” 

Forcing someone to try a new food, pushing alcoholic drinks on someone, or making comments about diets or body shapes is not only not helpful; it can cause more harm to someone who already has a complicated relationship with food.

“It’s important to remember that not all disabilities are visible,” Bligh said. “If we want to treat neurodiverse people with empathy, patience, and understanding, that means we have to practice those things all the time — regardless of how someone looks or acts.” 

Make food more fun

At the end of the day, food should be a source of joy; not fear. There is no age limit on applesauce pouches or dinosaur chicken nuggets, and there is certainly something about a fun little serving platter that makes a charcuterie board taste that much better.

Help your loved ones lean into the exciting, enjoyable elements of eating — and turn the kitchen into a place of relief — not responsibility.

We all have reasons why we avoid or enjoy certain foods. Whether you have that cilantro-tastes-like-soap gene, are experiencing curious pregnancy cravings, live with sensory issues, or are simply allergic to a certain food, we all deserve the dignity, autonomy, and independence to feed ourselves as we please. 

Being thoughtful and gracious about food is something that helps everyone — and no matter how cool someone thinks they are, no one is above a good Lunchable.

A version of this article was originally published in The 2023 Food Edition of the Goodnewspaper.

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Article Details

January 25, 2024 12:57 PM
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