You know the scenario too well: You’ve spent hours cooking a delicious and nutritious meal – only for your child to dislike most ingredients on their plate. “I don’t want to eat broccoli,” they proclaim. “But it is good for you,” you answer back. And so it goes on. Luckily, there are practical tips that can solve your child’s picky eating problem.
While picky eating is not unique to children with autism, they often require unique solutions to solve the picky eating conundrum. We have scoured the medical journals and discovered ten practical tips backed by science to help you in your quest to get your child to eat healthy, balanced meals.
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Overcome Picky Eating
Research has shown that regular, consistent mealtime routines can help children on the spectrum feel secure. Children will accept the food choices more readily if their routines are predictable.
Variety is the Spice of Life
While giving your child a balanced meal is important, you are better off presenting them with choices from each food group. Studies suggest repeated exposure to various foods can increase your child’s acceptance.
It Should Be Fun
Remember how much most of us hated mealtimes as a child? It’s no wonder some children on the spectrum are bored during mealtimes. Playful interactions with food can increase familiarity and acceptance. You can even get your child to “assist” you in the kitchen with preparing the food.
It’s All About the Senses
Children on the autism spectrum are often hypersensitive to certain shapes, smells, and textures. Keep this in mind when you prepare your food, but also consider this when you are serving the food. Studies have shown that sensory-based food strategies, for example, modifying texture or temperature, can help overcome aversions and increase acceptance of the food you serve.
Little Chefs in the Kitchen
Maybe your child has a special knack for the culinary arts, or maybe they have other talents, but either way, involve them in the kitchen. Studies have indicated that getting children to assist in preparing meals can improve their attitude toward the food.
Several studies suggest that visual aids, such as visual schedules, food choice boards, or social stories, can help children on the spectrum with picky eating. This way, they understand and can prepare for mealtime routines and clearly anticipate expectations.
Get Professional Help
If you are at your wits’ end, consider consulting a professional, such as an occupational therapist specializing in feeding difficulties. It has been shown that occupational therapy can provide strategies to address sensory issues, oral motor skills, and self-feeding challenges.
Make It Pretty and Engaging
It’s a fact: you are more likely to eat food that looks good. And to a child on the spectrum, that might look different from what looks appetizing for you. A recent study found that techniques such as cutting foods into fun shapes or especially arranging them might lead to children eating them. Consider your child’s interests. If they love trains, consider arranging the food into a “train.”
Not All at Once
Few people like sudden change, and often, children with autism find sudden change disarming. Introduce new foods gradually. You can introduce small portions of new food to a dish they already like and gradually increase the food the more they get used to it.
Patience is a Virtue
The most important is to be patient and consistent. Your efforts might not pay off the first few times but keep trying new things. Research has shown that parents who continue to innovate, not being too hard on themselves to solve the picky eating problem immediately, often get better long-term results.
Dealing with picky eating can be challenging, but various strategies and approaches, backed by science, can help parents and caregivers foster healthier eating habits. Understanding the underlying causes of picky eating and combining patience, creativity, and consistency can broaden food preferences and ensure a more balanced diet.
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Q: Why are some children or individuals picky eaters, and is it a cause for concern?
A: Picky eating can be influenced by various factors, including sensory sensitivities, control issues, or past negative experiences with food. It’s often a normal development phase for children, but if it severely limits their diet and nutrition or persists into adulthood, it may warrant professional evaluation.
Q: What are some effective strategies for encouraging picky eaters to try new foods?
A: Strategies include introducing new foods gradually, involving children in meal planning and preparation, making meals fun and visually appealing, and being a positive role model by trying new foods yourself. Experimenting with different textures and flavors can also help.
Q: Can specific foods help picky eaters expand their palate?
A: While individual preferences vary, foods that are mild, easily palatable, and have familiar flavors are often a good starting point. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can be introduced creatively to make them more appealing.
Q: How can I ensure my picky eater gets adequate nutrition despite their limited diet?
A: Consider offering supplements or fortified foods, but consult a healthcare professional. Focus on offering a variety of foods within their comfort zone and be patient as their food preferences expand over time.
Q: When should I seek professional help for a picky eater, and what kind of specialists can assist with this issue?
A: If picky eating is causing significant distress, malnutrition, or impacting daily life, it’s advisable to consult a healthcare provider, pediatrician, or registered dietitian. They can assess the situation, rule out underlying medical conditions, and provide guidance or therapy as needed.
This article originally appeared in our September 2023 issue (issue 156): https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/issue-156-picky-eating/