If your child is a picky eater, you are not alone. Up to 70 percent of parents of children with ASD report concerns about eating habits. Introducing a variety of food choices is an important part of any child’s nutritional wellbeing. It is also a great time to practice behavior responses to new things. It is important to keep in mind, that if your child’s picking eating habits interfere with their ability to eat enough calories or nutrients, you should reach out to your pediatrician right away about how to supplement their nutrition habits and ensure a happy, healthy childhood.
The jury is still out on what causes narrow eating habits, but guardians can focus on the factors they know can be a struggle for their child including anxiety, inflexibility, and sensory issues.
Strategies For Food Diversity
Allergies & Reactions
Safety is the top priority, so the first step is to make sure there aren’t any medical reasons your child does not enjoy eating a certain type of food. Food allergies can be a major contributor to your child showing disdain for a certain food group. Some allergies can be obvious, like severe tree nut allergies, but others can be more subtle, like being lactose intolerant. It can be difficult for your child to let you know their stomach is upset after eating or drinking something. They may not even realize the cause of the discomfort. Consult with a pediatrician if you see patterns of discomfort after eating or if you have concerns about a specific food allergy.
New Food Introductions
Parents and guardians who normally prepare food for their children are in tune with their preferences. However, when staying with other family members or starting school, new foods can be a source of conflict. We suggest NOT battling it out at the table. We don’t have to tell you that arguing or trying to force a child to eat usually makes the situation worse.
Instead, introducing new foods can be an exciting process. Many children with autism have anxiety about trying new things. In psychology, that is referred to as neophobia. So, like other phobias, it can be a good idea to practice a type of exposure therapy. For example, instead of asking the child to taste a new food, you can start by simply looking at the new food. From there, you can encourage them to hold it or smell it. This is a great game and bonding activity. Once they are ready, encourage them to take a nibble. Mirroring the behavior is also a fun way to give an example of eating and enjoying the new food.
Another method includes mixing the new food in with other familiar foods that they enjoy. This way, you can gradually introduce the new foods and lower anxiety about their introduction. One way is the mystery method. In this approach, you will add a mystery ingredient that goes well with the dish. For instance, if they are eating macaroni and cheese, offer them an option to add broccoli, peas, or green beans. You can make this a family game and have your child choose the mystery ingredient and have the family guess.
Giving food choices is great decision-making practice as well as a prime method of introduction. Instead of serving a new vegetable on a plate, give them the option between a few vegetables or dishes. Or, give them a plate with 3 sections and allow them to fill the plate with 3 different foods. This approach helps children know that it is okay to have food preferences, but variety is still important. You and your child can both have the best of both worlds.
Play with your child by playing with your food! Take a step back and remember that any child can have difficulty describing dislikes and discomforts in any situation. Perhaps they don’t know how to tell you that they don’t enjoy the texture of a tomato but love tomato sauce, or maybe the crust really does taste different than the rest of the sandwich. Regardless, we encourage you to continue being your child’s advocate as they build their experiences, even with food.
The Solstice Behavioral Health & Consulting team is dedicated to providing quality services to children with autism spectrum disorder. We have seen tremendous improvement and understanding in our families who dedicate time and energy to understanding autism. ABA therapy in combination with at-home practices, such as food introduction, is the best and most reliable way to see your child learn and grow. Find out more about services available to your child and your family. Contact the Shelton office today.