Do you have a picky eater with autism at home? Do you sometimes struggle to understand why and how your child only eats a very limited selection of food and how to deal with their extremely “ritualistic” eating behaviour? Here I will try to give you some tips regarding this topic. Recently I have recorded 7 tips about “How to expand the diet of picky eaters with autism” that you can find on my blog or Face Book page and my YouTube channel. Hovewer, I have come to the realisation that sometimes you want to see and read the same information and keep a short list of tips handy somewhere. So, here I am summarising my video tips and I hope you will find it useful.
Tip 1 – EXCLUDE ANY MEDICAL REASONS FOR FUSSY BEHAVIOUR AT THE TABLE
If your child is clamping their lips shut when offered certain food, it may be that they know it will make their stomach hurt. Gastrointestinal distress is very common among children with autism, many of whom can’t easily describe their distress. If your child experiences diarrhea or constipation, bloating and even pain, it means their diet needs to be changed! Please, discuss this issue with a specialist. Individual nutritional support for your child will help to fix this problem and lead to further improvements in behaviour!
Tip 2 – STAY CALM, BE PATIENT AND BE CREATIVE
Any child can take time to taste a new food before they really accept it and start to like it. But in the case of children with autism this process can be much longer and more dramatic. You have to be patient as your child explores and samples new foods. If they continue to reject a food even after many attempts, perhaps they just don’t like it. Move to another new ingredient. Either way, on no condition should you let mealtime become a family battleground. Instead, get creative! You can hide a new food inside of something that your child already likes. For example, if they like burgers, next time when you make them, you can add a small amount of the new food you want to introduce into their diet to meat mince, such as finely chopped onion, zucchini, some spices like curcuma and so on. The idea is, to slowly change an appetite on a cellular level! So, if your child eats a new food little by little, finally he will accept it.
Tip 3 – TAKE STEPS TOWARD TASTING
Many children with autism are afraid to try new things, especially new food. This means we need to think of ways to manage this anxiety. For instance, instead of asking the child to taste the new food straight away and even insisting them do it, try a stepwise approach. First, you can simply look at the new food together. Then you can suggest that both of you can smell it and then touch it. When you think your child is ready for a taste, they can try giving the food “a kiss” or licking it before putting a small bite into their mouth. Sometimes, mixing a new food with a favorite one can really help. This is actually something your child can do by themselves as a game to add new food to the one they already know. This gradual approach decreases anxiety about new foods by increasing familiarity.
Tip 4 – IDENTIFY SPECIFIC TEXTURE DESIRES AND THEN BE INNOVATIVE
Some kids have sensory difficulties with food. So, it may be how a particular food feels in the mouth, rather than its flavor, that produces the dislike. For example, a child may dislike the way a cherry tomato turns from solid to mushy in their mouth, even though they like the flavor. It can be difficult for children to separate the good taste from the disturbing texture. Therefore, identify the texture that your child likes and dislikes and then be innovative. If a child only likes only crispy textures, serve food crispy. If they only like smooth textures, serve puree. That tomato, for example, can be chopped into salsa or blended and cooked into sauce. Also, you may consider to look into sensory integration therapies as this can be a crucial key in improvement.
Tip 5 – INVOLVE CHILDREN IN FOOD PREPARATION AND ALLOW THEM TO PLAY WITH NEW FOOD
In order to help your child build familiarity with new food and therefore decrease anxiety about new food, you can involve your child as much as possible in the food preparation process. For instance, ask your child to count cherry tomatoes or carrot sticks for everyone around the table, mix the fruit salad or press the button on a blender when you prepare a sauce. And, please, allow your child to play with new food. Or even better, do it together! How about painting with tomato sauce or creating smiley faces from different vegetables and berries, maybe you can cut stars or hearts from watermelon or kiwi. While you’re playing, let your child see how you taste the new food — and enjoy it! Build positive emotions about new food which will in turn help to reduce your child’s anxiety for that food.
Tip 6 – REMOVE FOODS THAT CAUSE ADDICTION AND OFFER CHOICES OF OTHER FOODS
Picky eating can be due to being addicted to certain foods. This happens because the opiate-like compounds from the improperly digested wheat and dairy proteins cause cravings for wheat and dairy foods. If your child’s diet is made up of high amounts of only a few products like pizza, pasta, bread, milk, cheese, biscuits and similar products, it’s very possible that their picky eating is due to gluten and dairy cravings as well as some additives which can be found in processed food (MSG, artificial colors and flavors). After removing these foods that are causing addiction, food choice often increases significantly. Also, when you offer foods to your child, try to offer a broad variety and allow choice within the categories you care about. So, this way your child has a choice and a sense of control over what he puts into his mouth.
Tip 7 – BE CAREFUL WITH REWARDS AND INVOLVE THE WHOE FAMILY IN THE PROCESS
Unfortunately, the age-old rule of: “if you eat your broccoli, you can have an ice cream” doesn’t work. It may work in the short term, but it won’t work in the long term, it doesn’t help to achieve the desired results. Your child may quickly swallow the broccoli to get their reward, but they won’t learn to enjoy it or understand why it is important to eat a well-balanced diet, which is the goal. So, choose different rewards not associated with food. Such as, playing a game together, watching a film together, reading a book together and so on. At the same time make sure that the whole family participates in the process! If dad is a picky eater and he is not willing to eat the new foods, you will never convince the child to do so. Only complete family effort can be productive. And, please, remember, if you don’t succeed straight away, try, try again! You sometimes need to to introduce new food 15 times before a child start to eat it.
I hope you have managed to read thus all and have found it useful and informative. Please, try these tips at home if you have not applied them already. Let me know if they help you. Do you maybe have any other great ideas and tips on how to help picky eaters to diversify their diet? Please, share them with me and others! I look forward to hearing your stories!