It is very common for children with autism to be selective with their food. This can make it difficult for parents to encourage a varied and balanced diet. When moving your child to a more nutritional diet, you should keep in mind that common foods may have toxins and that there are healthier alternatives to the sugary comfort foods your child may turn to. Poppy Life Care’s nutrition program can help you and your child learn to build a healthy diet that will support brain health.
It is important to intervene at an early age to set your child up for a healthy future. These tips can help you shift your child to a more nutritional diet.
Understanding the cause of your child’s selective eating
First, you may want to investigate the root of your child’s problems with food. Juliann Garey from the Child Mind Institute states that this is the first step in getting your child accustomed to new foods. There is no singular reason for food selectiveness in children on the spectrum. Possible causes include gastrointestinal problems that your child has trouble identifying, sensory issues (ex. disliking certain food textures), oral-motor functioning problems, or a strong dislike for new things. If none of these apply to your child, keep in mind that there are numerous other potential reasons for selective eating habits. Understanding the causes behind your child’s picky eating habits can help you address them more effectively.
Introduce new food slowly
Trying new food doesn’t have to start with eating. If your child is uncomfortable with new foods, you can take a step-by-step approach suggested by clinical psychologist Dr. Emily Kuschner. You can start by having your child simply look at the food. Once they are comfortable with that, you can progress to smelling or touching the food. Finally, you can have them taste it. It is important to keep your child’s comfort level in mind and be patient. Another strategy is pairing new foods with familiar ones. This approach can reduce your child’s anxiety about new foods.
Consider preparing challenging foods differently
As aforementioned, one of the causes for your child’s selectiveness with food could be sensory problems. They may dislike the food’s texture or temperature in particular. In this case, you could prepare the food differently to encourage your child to give it a second try. For example, if they disliked the taste of boiled broccoli, you could try pan-frying it, roasting it, or even pureeing it instead. Different methods also give the food slightly different tastes, so this tip can also help if taste was causing issues for your child.
Giving your child choices can reduce their anxiety around new food and introduce variety into their diet. For example, if you want your child to eat more vegetables, you can offer them carrots, broccoli, and spinach, and have them choose one. Dr. Kuschner states that options let your child feel like they have control over their diet. This approach also teaches them that it is important to eat a wide variety of foods.
Have realistic and clear expectations
Garey emphasizes the importance of making your expectations clear to your child. They need to have structure during mealtime and know what they are trying to achieve. It is also important to keep your expectations realistic. For example, if you are offering a certain food to your child for the first time, it is unrealistic to expect them to eat the whole serving. Having a goal that your child fails to achieve may discourage them even further from trying new foods.
Be liberal with praise
Dr. Stephanie Lee, a clinical psychologist, states that praise is key to addressing your child’s selective eating habits. Praising your child at every step reinforces their behavior and lets them know that they are headed in the right direction. General praise like saying “good job” and high-fives work, but praise that mentions specific behaviors is especially effective. This type of praise lets your child know exactly what kind of behavior to continue. For example, you could say, “Thank you for trying that broccoli today!” In addition, Dr. Lee states that praise should outweigh reprimands and should always be genuine and not forced.
The most important tip to keep in mind while helping your child change to a more nutritious diet is to be patient. It can take time for anyone, let alone children with autism, to push past discomfort and make a change. Think of times when you have had to step outside of your comfort zone and have empathy. With the right support, you can help your child develop healthier eating habits.