Picky eating is not a diagnosable condition that has concrete symptoms. In a way it is like Autism existing on a spectrum and can have a variety of presentations. If you have a picky eater and mealtimes become a challenge – just know that you are not alone! It is estimated that 50-75% of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have eating challenges that are more severe than most children experience. This can include ritualistic eating behaviors, restrictive diets, a harder time accepting new foods, outbursts at the dinner table, extremely picky eating due to aversion to certain smells and textures, and ultimately an extremely narrow food selection that could possibly mean your child is not receiving the best nutrition from their food. Current research is aimed at fully understanding ASD and the picky eating connection. So for now, we can do our best to understand the underlying reasons and sensory challenges that present obstacles for children on the spectrum. We have come up with a list of ways to help children with picky eating, try new foods, and deal with changes to their diet!
Offer a variety of food choices:
Food flexibility is something many picky eaters struggle with. This can include struggling to welcome a new brand or how a food is prepared, preference to only eat in a certain environment or on a particular plate, and other forms of rigidity. This puts children in a higher risk category for nutrient deficiencies, can make eating out or traveling extremely difficult, and just makes eating every day more of a challenge.
Does your child have any foods that were formerly preferred but are now more on the aversion side? You could start by serving these foods up in small portions or even changing up the presentation of them a little. Remember that small portions are the key! It is a good idea to serve only two options at a time such as “which bite do you want first?”, “which size bite do you want?”. Giving your child choices in what they are eating is helpful to make the experience less aversive as a whole.
Don’t isolate your child from their non-preferred foods:
Yes, even if they are uncomfortable being around them. If your child truly has an aversion to a certain food item, exposure is crucial so that they can become more familiar with them. Often this can be a vegetable for a variety of sensory reasons or even their bright color, this can also often times be types of protein sources for the same reasoning. It is important your child learns about new foods as they grow. This will help ensure they are working toward a well-balanced diet and working away from any food aversions.
If your child is having a hard time with non-preferred foods on their plate you can always place them on the table or have them witness you, or other members of the family, eating a variety of foods. Remember if your child won’t try new food on their own – model it! Get creative and show them it is fun to try something new!
Have them involved with preparing food and food related activities:
Having your child join you in grocery shopping, gardening of fruit and vegetables, and other food related activities is a great way for a child to experience new foods. Yep – even playing with food can help! The more comfortable they get with food the more comfortable they will be with ultimately trying out new foods.
Cooking with kids, grocery shopping, and gardening are all creative ways to give your child exposure and build positive experiences with new foods. For more ideas on gardening and cooking with your child check our latest board on Pinterest.
When having children join in the fun of creating meals and trying new foods it is important to remember that kitchen safety comes first! Here are some tips for keeping your kids safe in the kitchen:
- When it comes to pots and pans on the stovetops and countertops, always keep the handles toward the back burners and far away from the edge of counters. If possible, use the back burners only and push the pots away from the edge of countertops.
- Give your kids a kitchen tour and make sure you explain to them what is safe and what is not safe and not to be touched. Give advice to your children about what is in the kitchen and what is off limits to them.
- It is a good idea to keep the kitchen tidy while everyone is in there preparing food. Ensure there are no loosely left items lying around in the kitchen that the child can easily grab and throw. Keep everything locked in cupboards and cabinets and take it out only while using.
Taking extra steps in your mealtime routines and kitchen safety practices can be challenging and require patience. Being observant, identifying the challenges along the way, and checking the area to prevent any harm are all key steps you can take to ensure that the kitchen is a safer place for your child and that mealtimes are a more enjoyable task. If you suspect your child is experiencing extreme picky eating behaviors, it is best to bring your concerns to your pediatrician or other medical professionals. You can always consult with a specialist such as a feeding therapist or a registered dietitian. As with any part of your child’s care you will need to find someone who understands your child’s unique struggle and needs.