It is not uncommon for children with autism and related disorders to be picky eaters. This can create stressful mealtimes at home and at school. It can also create an unbalanced diet that can make it more difficult for a child to learn. A properly nourished brain allows the child to be in the best position to learn. The good news is that eating a variety of foods is a skill that can be taught. Here are a few tips to help you introduce new foods to your child’s diet and make mealtime less stressful. If you need additional support, please reach out to your child’s teacher who can work with their BCBA to develop strategies to overcome specific eating challenges. At the bottom of the blog post are links to more information and helpful recipes.
When it comes to introducing new foods to a child with autism, it is best to focus on two key areas: sensory reactions and predictability.
All of us at one time or another had food put in front of us that we may have rejected based on how it looked or smelled. For kids with autism who often have heightened sensory reactions they may reject food based on not just how it looks or smells but also on texture, taste, temperature and feel.
Play with Texture
If your child tends to like foods that are smooth, try blending small amounts of a new fruit or vegetable into a smoothie or puree a small amount to put in or on food you know they like. Applesauce or carrots can often be snuck into a baked good without being noticed.
Temperature and Taste
Foods that are too cold or are too hot in temperature can be over stimulating for some children with autism. You may find letting your child’s food get closer to room temperature before serving it will reduce negative reactions to a food. Similarly, foods that are too bland or too seasoned, sour, or spicy can be a challenge for many picky eaters. Especially when introducing a new food keep the focus on the core ingredient and minimize temperature and seasoning distractions.
Baby Steps and Patience
When introducing a new food don’t expect your child to willingly eat it the first time. Try putting a little amount, one small broccoli spear, on a separate plate. Encourage your child to touch it even play with it before prompting them to eat it. If your child likes a certain character, animal or shape associate the new food with other things they enjoy. Try cutting up a fruit or vegetable and use a cookie cutter or food mold to make it into a favorite shape. Favorite plates with characters on them or plates that divide portions so they don’t touch each other can also help. Most important of all is to be patient. It may take your child several weeks to get used to the new food item from a sensory perspective before they’re ready to taste it.
Role Model, Reward & Praise
Let your child see you enjoying a variety of food meal. When your child does try a new food reward them with something they’ll enjoy such as watching a favorite movie or playing a video game. Whenever your child behaves well at mealtime praise the specific behaviors you want to see them repeat. Examples, “I’m very proud of you for eating your broccoli!” or “Great job staying in your seat at dinner tonight.”
Routine & Predictability
You already know that children with autism love a routine. As much as possible keep to consistent mealtimes. If your child has favorite plates, cups and cutlery use those items especially when you’re introducing a new food item. Your child’s need for routine may require they want to eat the same food every day. This level of routine can help creating an environment that allows your child to feel safe and open to a new food item.
You may find that as part of your morning routine you letting your child know what food they’re going to have for lunch and dinner will reduce anxiety going into mealtime. Allowing your child to choose what they are going to eat is another way of reducing anxiety and creating an environment where they feel safe to try something new.
Time and Patience (again)
Sometimes it’s just a matter of time. Don’t limit foods simply because your child refuses them at first. Most kids need between 10 and 20 exposures before they'll try anything new. The more familiar a particular food looks, the more likely they may want to try it at some point. Continue to serve it, keep it on the table, model eating it, and give them plenty of opportunities to examine it. Making mealtimes as pleasant as possible for the whole family will reduce your child's (and your) anxiety levels around eating and new foods.