Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can manifest in many behaviors, some more challenging than others. A defining feature of the condition is difficulty adapting to new stimuli and breaking previously established preferences and patterns of behavior. This behavior can manifest itself in daily life, particularly in an activity we engage in every day.
Everyone eats, and for those on the spectrum, this can be an experience that causes discomfort. Picky eating is a common trait of those on the spectrum. Anywhere from 46 to 89% of neurodivergent children have issues with picky eating. They may reject foods not based on taste but on color, texture, and factors harder to discern, like patterns on plates, food touching, and other rituals around meal consumption. The condition is known as food refusal in the extreme case and food selectivity on the lighter end.
Although research is limited, there are concerning correlations between picky eating on the spectrum and obesity and malnutrition. More so, social costs are imposed on families when their child refuses to eat. The anxiety and stress surrounding every meal can add up, not to mention difficulties at family gatherings, holidays, visits, and restaurants.
However, with age and practice, picky eating can be decreased as your child expands their palette and discovers new things to love. Here at ABA Centers of Florida, we’ve assembled a list of tips to implement to help you along the process and ensure your child gets the nutrients they need to grow.
1. Account for Health Problems
Children are not the best at conveying when they have health problems. Before addressing picky eating, rule out all possible health causes. Maybe your child is intolerant or mildly allergic to a food type and has developed negative associations with it, so their refusal of it is justified. There is also tooth pain, stomach issues caused by other conditions, and acid reflux. Make sure the picky eating doesn’t have a physiological basis before attempting to change the behavior.
2. Begin Logging Your Child’s Food
Picky eating is a behavior that someone can easily quantify. The first step to identifying a problem and taking positive steps to alter it is to get the data on it. There is no set way to measure picky eating correctly. You could keep a master list of every food your child has tried and whether they refused it.
You could also take time-sensitive over weeks. Choose two weekdays and one weekend, and record all food and beverages your child chooses to consume. With some time, you’ll see a baseline of food they like and can begin keeping track of your child’s progress.
3. Don’t Pressure Your Child
The last thing you want is for your child to feel unsafe during dinnertime. Picky eaters already struggle with the food itself, so you mustn’t create an atmosphere of expectation and anxiety. After putting the food on the table:
- Take time to discuss it without fretting or judgment.
- Allow your child to play with it or pick around it.
- Take a big bite and make a joke about it.
The key is to make dinnertime fun by taking your time, incorporating a silly activity right beforehand, and relaxing your neurodivergent kid. When people are happy, they are more open to new experiences, and this principle does not stop applying because your child is on the spectrum.
4. Ease Them Into It
A little bit goes a long way! If you want to introduce a picky eater to something, start small. Portion size control is the central place in which to tackle this. Offer your child a small bite of food intermittently and over months. Start easy; nothing like a mouthful. You can also serve baby versions of foods. Instead of a whole carrot, try a baby carrot. Don’t offer an entire apple but apple slices.
Then there is broccoli, which has a reputation in American culture as the bane of picky eating. But there are ways to manage this, starting with portion control. Instead of offering a big bite, cut the broccoli into small manageable florets or opt for broccolini, which is narrower and tastier. There’s also the possibility of cutting food your child may refuse into fun shapes they want to try. Get creative! There are many ways to make bites fun.
5. Mind your Food Pairings
Meals combine foods because flavors are better when paired. Nothing is sadder than eating boiled broccoli, but it comes alive in a stir fry or a blended soup. The same is true for neurodivergent kids, even if their palettes are limited. One way to get your picky-eating child used to the food they are unfamiliar with is to pair it with what they love.
Cheese, pears, or grapes are an excellent way to sneak fruit into your child’s diet. Carrots and hummus are a nutritious combination. Due to its simplicity, pasta is often the gateway for more adventurous eating. It begins with just noodles and butter. You add marinara, and suddenly your child gets used to the taste of tomatoes.
Introduce meatballs, and kids become used to mushier textures and composites. Just a few capers, and suddenly, they get acquainted with solid flavors. Cook a pasta dish with white wine and shrimp, and now you have added seafood to their palette from the humble beginnings of a two-ingredient dish.
6. Prepare Foods in A Similar Way
Sometimes, the simplest way to sneak food past picky eating is to prepare new foods in a style they already love. The fryer and sauté pan are your best friends in this task. Those with aggressive food aversions prefer things fried. You can pair their preferred fried food with interesting, flavorful sauces and dips.
You can also ease your child into vegetables by offering them in nugget form with some breading. If your child eats breaded cauliflower, before long, they won’t mind the taste of cauliflower in other dishes. Without them realizing it, your kiddo’s palette will have expanded to incorporate new flavors.
The stir fry is a perfect example of this food pairing method. Perhaps your neurodivergent child is used to eating chicken and rice. Add small amounts of vegetables in the stir fry and prepare the veggies in the same way so they come out thoroughly cooked and crispy. Broccoli, onions, cauliflower, spinach, and shredded carrots can all be added to a diet since they are very adaptable and cook well with many food staples.
If all else fails and the issue is texture, try mashing or blending. Mashed cauliflower puree has a similar flavor and texture to mashed potatoes. If your child loves fruit beverages, instead of buying them at the store, blend them yourself and add kale or carrots in small amounts to supplement their diet. The gains might be small, but you can take their growing comfort level with new ingredients as a big win.
7. Involve Them in The Process
Children on the spectrum have exceptional abilities that take a little work to coax out. They are capable of creativity, ingenuity, and daring, often surprising with their talents. There is no reason this stops when entering the kitchen. If your child exhibits picky eating, have them join along with the cooking process.
Teach them how to cut, cook a simple meal, manage temperature, and when to stir. You might spark a lifelong fascination with food and its preparation.
ABA Centers of Florida – Helping Picky Eaters and More
No matter what challenges your child and family might be facing, we are here to help. ABA Centers of Florida offers the gold standard, ABA therapy, to help your loved one learn life skills and grow in positive directions. Pick up the phone and call (772) 773-1975 or contact us through our website for a free consultation. Begin making a change toward a brighter, autism-friendly future.