Meet Zeek, who has just turned five. He likes to eat chicken nuggets, fish sticks, buttered noodles, and Ritz crackers. Oh, and cookies. He will eat any kind of cookies, so long as they have a crunch.
Before the age of two, he ate a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but now, it’s pulling teeth for his momma to get him to even come to the table when these foods are present.
Like many kids on the spectrum, Zeek is a selective eater. His mother worries he isn’t getting the nutrients he needs, that she’ll never convince him to eat healthy foods, and frankly, that he might turn into a chicken nugget!
Exasperated, she sometimes wonders: “Why will my son only eat white or beige foods?”
If you have a picky eater with autism, you may be able to relate to Zeek and his mother’s experience.
Why is my child with autism picky?
Feeding a child on the spectrum with picky eating can be challenging for a variety of reasons. To name a few:
- Your son/daughter may be more sensitive to taste, texture, smell, or temperature
- He/she may have skill delays that make using utensils, or even chewing or swallowing, difficult
- Your child may crave predictability and want the same meal night after night
- Your child could experience discomfort related to eating such as heartburn or tummy aches
Because every child with autism may present with unique factors that contribute to picky eating, it’s important to start by talking with your child’s doctor. Your child’s doctor can rule out medical concerns like allergies, reflux, or constipation.
A pediatrician can also make referrals to feeding programs or other feeding specialists. This will ensure your child has the skills he/she needs and a plan to proceed with eating safely.
Why are colorful foods more challenging for my child to eat?
Parents like Zeek’s often wonder why pale foods are easier for their child to eat than colorful foods such as fruits and vegetables.
The reasons why may vary from child to child, but here are a few factors that may lead your child to prefer white and beige foods:
- Colorful foods like fruits and vegetables tend to taste different depending on the season, their ripeness, and the way they are prepared. If your child likes routine or predictability, as many kids with autism do, this can be problematic
- Many white and beige foods, like those in Zeek’s diet, are more highly processed. They taste the same no matter the season and no matter who prepares them
- Crunchy foods like crackers and cookies are easy to eat. Noodles and nuggets are soft and also require less effort to chew. A raw carrot, a cob of corn, and an exploding cherry tomato are all textures that could require more skill, or simply, might be too varied for a kid who wants a predictable munch or crunch
- Crackers, cookies, and other processed foods tend to have more mild flavors. Colorful foods come with an assortment of flavors from bitter to sweet. Your child might find these bright flavors off-putting
What can I do to help my child eat a rainbow of foods?
Once your child is cleared from a safety perspective, there are a variety of things you can do to encourage your honey to try new, colorful foods at a pace that’s comfy.
Here are a few strategies you can choose from:
Introduce a very small portion of the colorful food to your child’s plate
You could offer two cherry tomatoes or one green grape on the side of his/her plate. If this is too challenging for your child, place the portion on a separate plate. It can be across the table or next to your child’s plate.
Think of this as just tolerating the new food being present. Over time, you can up the ante by moving the food closer or asking your child to touch the food.
Praise steps your child takes with the new food—touch, smell, lick, taste, anything!
You want to make sure your child knows how much you love that he/she is getting used to something new. So, when your child is tolerating a new food on his/her plate, take note of anything he/she does with the food—and comment enthusiastically.
Put a tiny dot of the new food onto a preferred food
You could load your child’s fork with three noodles and one small green pea. You could place a tiny dot of red strawberry on your child’s favorite cracker. You could put a sliver of orange pepper between your child’s cheese and ham.
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Whatever your strategy for adding that little smidge of color to your child’s food, just make sure your child knows it’s there. The goal isn’t to trick your child into trying something new; the goal is to set the bar so your child can be successful.
After your child is engaging with a colorful food or eating it with a preferred food, offer him/her a very, very small bite
You could cube a peach the size of a pea, quarter the blueberry, or pull one hair of broccoli off its stem. By offering a small bite, and showing your child exactly how itty bitty that bite is, you can encourage your child. You want him/her to look at this little bite, and think: “Oh! I can do that!”
Use positive language so that your child knows you believe in him/her
Whatever your way of imparting confidence to your child, do it often at mealtimes when you are offering new, colorful foods.
You might say things like: You are so good at getting your body used to new things, that I know you can….
Have this snap pea on your plate today
Give this carrot a kiss
Touch this avocado with your pointer finger
These remarks will let your child know exactly what you’d like to see and set him/her up for success.
Offer a reward to your child for being brave
You’re asking your child to take a big bold move that’s outside of his/her comfort zone. Think of ways you can celebrate his/her achievement and tell your child what you have in mind.
You could say:
If you take a pea-size bite of your tomato, I will push you on the swing
If you touch your kiwi, you can have a sticker for your sticker book
If you smell your orange, we’ll have a dance party right here in the kitchen
Don’t forget to follow through right away once your child does the behavior. A new achievement with a colorful food is reason for an instant celebration!
Many kids with autism struggle with selective or picky eating. It can be challenging to introduce fresh, colorful foods, but with consistency, persistence, and the tips provided here, you can set your child up for success.
This article was featured in Issue 113 – Transitioning to Adulthood