How to Support Sensory Needs in the Cafeteria

The cafeteria is a terrible place for people with sensory sensitivities.  If you have ever joined your child for lunch at school, you will agree.  Two hundred or more children, 1000 different smells, and the chaotic noise level do not create a great eating environment for anyone. In this post we will explore how to support sensory needs in the cafeteria. For the school based OT, the cafeteria can be an alternate environment for addressing daily functional needs. Because this setting is so commonly targeted in school occupational therapy, we wanted to create a blog post centered around the sensory considerations in the school cafeteria.

How to support sensory needs in the school lunchroom

There are three great steps I use to try and untangle the web of sensory processing difficulties. I try and understand, communicate, and accommodate.  When the behavior is noticed first, we tend to focus on that, without taking the time to understand and learn what is really going on. If a behavior is based on a sensory reaction, often it will diminish once the sensory needs are addressed.

Much like the sensory stimulation of a fire drill, the sights, sounds, scents, and overwhelming amount of people in the cafeteria can result in sensory overload. We might see sensory dysregulation pop up and if this happens on a regular basis, we might even see overstimulation anxiety because the student knows this highly stimulating experience is coming up at a specific time each school day. It’s very stressful!

This post is just one of several, highlighting strategies and tips to understand, communicate, and accommodate sensory needs. “How to support sensory needs in the cafeteria” is an excerpt from my book, Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.  I wrote this book to provide a road map to assist caregivers in navigating environments and settings that trigger sensory outbursts daily.  It is a great resource for therapists, educators, and caregivers.

How to support sensory needs in the cafeteria

The first of many strategies on how to support sensory needs in the cafeteria includes understanding what senses may be triggered in this environment.  This sensory input may be great for seekers, or too much for avoiders:


Almost all your senses can be considered in the cafeteria lunch room:

  • Visual:  200 children, 100 different food items, sitting close to peers, people eating with their fingers, people chewing with their mouths open, messy eating, lunch boxes, trays, drinks, food, and containers all create a visual distraction.  This makes it difficult to focus on eating when there is this much visual stimuli present. Sometimes it takes a combination of input to send a person into overload, while for others one event such as watching someone lick their fingers can be a trigger.
  • Olfactory:  200 children and 100 different food items combine to form thousands of combinations of smells.  One food might smell fine, but when added to twenty others, it is an unbearable combination. The brain and olfactory system have difficulty making sense of the number of the smells coming in at once.  For me, smelling food at a time or place it “does not belong” is a big trigger.  I cannot tolerate the smell of lunch foods cooking early in the morning, or someone bringing their smelly lunch into our office.
  • Auditory:  200 children all whispering at the same time creates a loud noise, especially when combined with eating noises, chewing, burping, gulping, licking fingers, and smacking lips.  Misophonia is a newer term used to describe the hatred people feel toward certain sounds, especially the sound of chewing food. Plus, then you have trays dropping, teachers yelling announcements, kids that get louder and louder it seems…the sudden sounds, students moving quickly through the lunch lines…all of this combines to impact the sensory sensitive person, especially when it comes to auditory sensitivities.
  • Gustatory:  students buy cooked lunch food, or bring food from home.  Unexpected or disliked food options can present an issue for a picky eater.  While the cafeteria is an opportunity to try new foods by sharing with peers, this is not advised, as allergens and germs can be spread this way. 
  • Tactile:  many children sitting in proximity, sitting on benches, touching feet underneath the table, touching food, and struggling to open different containers can quickly feel overwhelming.  The sensory avoider has difficulty processing this much tactile input, while the sensory seeker becomes energized and craves more.
  • Proprioception:  sitting close to other people can set off alarm bells to someone who is sensitive.   A person without body boundaries struggles to stay seated and keep an appropriate distance from their peers.
  • Vestibular:  while attempting to sit still for a length of time the students will be in and out of their chairs, leaning on the table, standing at the table, or moving around the room.  Some students have such difficulty sitting still, they are unable to do anything else.
  • Emotional/behavioral:  anxiety, lack of control of the situation, lack of self-control, frustration, anger, interrogation, inability to express oneself, and excitement all contribute to acting out behaviors.  Often the behavior is noticed first when there is a sensory trigger.

When the senses overload, we might see a fight or fright reaction, impacting the limbic system. Overwhelming sensory input can trigger an automatic safety response called a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. We might see all kinds of sensory responses as a result.

There is visual noise where there is overwhelming background noise constantly. There are a lot of moving pieces happening all at once. Sometimes a simple conversation can ease the anxiety and set the stage for new or difficult situations.

Lunchroom Sensory story

The second strategy for how to support sensory needs in the cafeteriais learning to communicate about sensory preferences; how things look and feel, and what can be done to make life easier to navigate. 

This is a sample conversation about the cafeteria:

“The cafeteria is where you eat lunch.  There are many other students eating at the same time.  This can be a fun break for some, while overwhelming to others.  It is important to eat good food while you are at school to help you learn, focus, stay healthy, and grow.  We can decide together if we are going to pack you a lunch from home or have you buy food at school.  We can decide each day by looking at the menu.  There are rules to follow in the cafeteria to keep everyone safe, and I need you to make good choices while you are eating.”

You’ll want to make the lunch room sensory story very specific to the individual. This means that you want to include specifics about the time the student goes to lunch, where they sit, and the routine that they need to follow for getting their lunch and putting their tray back, or where they get their packed lunch from and where they throw away trash. These specifics mean that it’s difficult to use a social story found online or on websites as a download, because the overwhelming nature of the school lunch room is different for each individual because of the specifics of the setting, which is completely unique for each school.

But, you can use the cafeteria sensory story in different ways, which can be very beneficial:

  • Laminate the lunchroom sensory story and use it each day as a handout on the lunch table. The student can use a dry erase marker to check off tasks as they happen.
  • Put a small version of the cafeteria sensory story into the student’s lunchbox. This can be laminated as well.
  • Read through a lunchroom sensory story before going into the cafeteria. This can be incorporated as part of the student’s routine.

Sensory Questionnaire for the Cafeteria

One thing that is helpful is to do a sensory questionnaire with the student to really identify where the sensory challenges are popping up. A sensory processing checklist is helpful for this.

These are some questions to ask someone about their perception of the cafeteria:

  • Do you like the cafeteria?  Do you like sitting with your class all together?
  • What can you smell in the cafeteria?  What smells great or terrible?
  • Do you like the food in front of you?  What is your favorite?  Do you eat all your food each day?  If not, what makes it hard to eat in the cafeteria?
  • Is it loud in the cafeteria?  Do you even notice the noise?  What can you hear?  Does it make it harder to concentrate on your food, or are you able to tune out the chaos?  Can you hear people eating, talking, chewing, and moving around?
  • Are you having trouble staying in your seat for a long time?  Do you like sitting this close to people or do you feel like people are in your space?
  • Is it hard to have conversation while trying to filter out all the noises and eat at the same time?  Would you rather sit quietly; maybe with a book, or at the end of the table?
  • Are you able to open all the containers, cut/scoop your food, use a napkin, and drink from your cup?
  • Do you like touching the food, or would you rather have a fork?  Do you need more napkins or wipes so you do not feel so messy? Are you spilling food on your face, hands, or table?

Accommodate by learning how to support sensory needs in the cafeteria

Step three involves making accommodations to assist a person with sensory processing disorder navigate the environment easier, and with less distress. 

For example, autism and the loud noises or sudden noises can impact the rest of the day. Keeping this in mind, caregivers can help the transition go smoothly before, during, and after lunch time. Some things that specifically might help include visual schedules, a visual timer (Amazon affiliate link), noise cancelling headphones (Amazon affiliate link), quiet sitting spaces, and transition strategies for entering and leaving the cafeteria.

Some people frown on making accommodations as they feel it is giving people a crutch or making excuses.  Always keep your end goal in perspective. Is the goal of the cafeteria to sit quietly and enjoy the meal like everyone else, or to refuel and get nourishment for the rest of the day? 

  • Provide accommodations such as ear plugs, headphones, compression vest, weighted vest, or lap pad.
  • Consider possible flexible seating options.
  • Provide preferential seating at the end of the row to minimize distractions.
  • Create a sensory friendly table away from the crowd for the children who are overwhelmed.  This can be called the sensory table or the overflow table.  Children can choose to sit at one of these smaller tables if they are feeling over-stimulated.  This separate table is to foster improved self-regulation, not to make the student feel punished or isolated.
  • Create smaller areas for dining such as an empty classroom.  Smaller areas help children focus on their food.
  • Essential oils help mask noxious odors.  A child can wear an essential oil necklace or have a drop of oil under his nose which may be more pleasing than the combination of smells in the cafeteria.
  • Talk to the child about what foods are preferential, as well as the ones that are going to be difficult to eat.  Cafeteria staff and the teacher can work with families to decide if hot lunch is preferential, versus a packed lunch from home. 
  • Allow the child to stand at the table and eat if sitting is proving to be too much to handle. As long as the child stays in his designated spot while eating, this can be an acceptable choice.  It is not acceptable for children to walk around the room with bites of food in their mouth.
  • Provide conversation starters to aid in social skills.
  • Be specific about the cafeteria rules.  These might include: no throwing food, stay seated, do not share food, use a napkin, use utensils, chew with your mouth closed, and clean up after yourself.
  • Be sure the child can open all their containers.  Provide safety scissors for opening baggies if the child does not have the strength or coordination to pull them open.
  • Allow middle school or older students to read quietly instead of talking; if socializing is too overwhelming.  While social skills are important, lunch can be a nice break time during the day.  Students can use this time as a sensory break, by engaging in a book.  Ask your students why they might prefer to read instead of talking to friends.  Is it because they need help socializing, are being teased, or they would prefer a break during the day.

Real Life Examples of situations observed in the cafeteria

We often see or hear about situations in daily life that do not make sense. By being able to understand and untangle these situations, it is easier to provide support.

The child or person:

  • sits in the cafeteria for the 20-minute allotted time but does not eat.  The cafeteria is overwhelming to the child with sensory sensitivity.  Children with sensory processing disorder often have difficulty maintaining focus; they are unable to do much more than remain in their chair.  Providing accommodations or preferential seating can help the child maintain his arousal level and focus enough to eat.
  • is disruptive.  The cafeteria is overwhelming and less structured than the regular classroom.  Adding accommodations or preferential seating can help the child focus and make better choices.
  • is awkward with peers.  Social skills are difficult to learn and use correctly.  Socializing is even more difficult when trying to eat while filtering out all the distractions in the cafeteria.  Provide opportunities for good socialization, such as conversation starters or topics.
  • gets out of his seat to move around the room.  The cafeteria is overwhelming and unstructured time, therefore self-control tends to deteriorate in this space.  Adding accommodations such as a wiggle cushion, ankle weights, head phones, ear plugs, preferential seating, or standing on one spot instead of sitting can help the student maintain self-control.
  • gags or covers their face.  There are many different smells and sights in the cafeteria, including cooked lunches and food brought from home.  A sensitive child may have difficulty filtering these different odors and visual input.  The combination of smells may prove to be too much.  Preferential seating at the end of the table away from the center of the smells, sitting further away from the kitchen, or adding essential oils to mask the odors can help.

Fun activities about how to support sensory needs in the cafeteria

Sometimes children are not able to sit quietly when they are waiting or finished with what they are supposed to be doing.  Adding a few quiet ideas to pass the time can be great.  Of course some of the items are not going to be appropriate for the cafeteria, but can be used in other settings:

  • Waiting Games for Kids – these games are great for times when waiting is necessary. In an effort to get away from screen time, these are great suggestions.
  • Practice walking in line activities to work on spatial awareness.
  • Use a toolbox of coping strategies.
  • Focus on body awareness.
  • Focus on turn taking in getting food from the cafeteria line, waiting for dismissal, etc.
  • Would you rather questions Ask each other questions which begin “would you rather”? The Measured Mom has 100 questions you can print out if you prefer to keep a supply in your bag.
  • 20 Questions – this is a classic game that never gets old. Use this for students who are finished eating, waiting, or having difficulty getting their body organized
  • Riddles and brain puzzles are a great way to quietly get kids thinking about something other than the cafeteria
  • Social stories are another great idea for how to support sensory needs in the cafeteria.  This set of fun and engaging social skills activities are a great starting point to help students navigate acceptable cafeteria behavior and tackle social and emotion problem-solving situations.
  • Cafeteria Expectations activity- Often, students forget proper cafeteria behavior. You can easily review and help your students be ready with this movement game and craft.
  • The OT Toolbox is full of great resources.  Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes –  This guide can assist caregivers, individuals, families, therapists, and teachers untangle the web of senses to give correct guidance and assistance.  The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook – The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook is your strategy guide for turning sensory diets and sensory activities into a sensory lifestyle. The Sensory Processing Disorder Handbook – This 26 page guide explains SPD in easy-to-understand terms.
  • Social stories for the lunch room.
  • Take some time after eating lunch in the lunchroom and calm down or regulate in the calm down corner or a school sensory room.

Sensory Lunchroom Considerations

Because of my sensory “issues,” I avoid the cafeteria like the plague. Luckily for me, not much OT treatment has to be done in the cafeteria. I can work on feeding, opening containers, and social skills in the classroom. 

However, when the cafeteria is the best option, I take a deep breath and forge ahead. Teachers and other staff can easily be triggered by environments as well as children. Structure sensory breaks after overwhelming situations for both staff and students, and encourage accommodations as needed.

Victoria Wood, OTR/L is a contributor to The OT Toolbox and has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

how to support sensory needs in the school lunchroom

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