before we dive in to my personal tips and tricks on widening your awesome autistics palette, I want to give you sound advice from the people who know more about this than I will probably ever understand: the experts.
if your little – or not so little – human has a strict diet they are hesitant to budge on, the very first step you should take is to see a doctor to rule out any gastrointestinal issues. it’s great to acknowledge that sometimes our kids are just picky eaters and don’t try new things simply because they do not want to (i.e. my son), but we never want to assume that is the case without knowing all the facts – doing so could be detrimental to the progress of your awesome autistic. throughout this post, I will be tying in my advice with that of doctors who have studied nutritional deficits in autistic children. I have also linked my source at the bottom of the page for those who would like to do more research on the topic.
let’s dive in!
one day, he just stopped …
from birth and up until he was roughly 20 months old, big A would eat anything he was served. one of his favorite dishes was shrimp alfredo with the radiatori noodles because they were small enough to pick up with a small fork or with his hands. then one day, he just stopped .. it was as if a switch turned on that rejected all food – especially meat. to say that the next few months were frustrating is an understatement. at almost two years old, I was relearning who my awesome autistic was and what he liked, and he did not make it easy for me.
texture, smell, and color all play a part in big A’s diet; to this day it’s mostly carbs: pancakes/waffles, grilled cheese, pb&j, pizza, etc – I wish I had big A’s metabolism because I swear all that bread just turns into muscle on him. it has been a challenge trying to get him to try new things, and I have to admit that television has a lot to do with his willingness to explore nutritional options. as a parent, it’s important to listen to our awesome autistics when they express hesitance with trying new things. we know our little humans better than anyone else, we know the limits we can push and when we need to back off so that we don’t cause trauma. pushing too hard can cause our little – and not so little- ones to shut down and deny food completely; we never want to be the reason they end up in that place. we have to move at their pace, that was the most important lesson I learned on big A’s food journey, so I want to share some of the steps we took to break the nutritional bounds.
1. let them be hands on!
the greatest factor that played a part in widening big A’s palette was the fact that I let him cook the meals with me. big A is very detail oriented, he likes to know everything he can and thrives when he can get hands on with activities. cooking a dinner and putting it in front him left with a lot of questions I was honestly tired of answering.
what is it?
are there vegetables?
you want me to eat people food?
are you sure there’s no meat in there?
what’s in it?
by letting him be in the kitchen and cook the meals with me, he knew step by step how the meal was prepared and had that time to get acquainted with all the ingredients. by the time we were done, the only question that was left on his mind was: will I like it? 97% of the time has been a win. and he’s usually willing to give everything a second try since he already knew what it consisted of. so far we’ve added: yogurt, cheese sticks, impossible spaghetti, no protein spaghetti, lasagna, granola bars, spinach, almond milk, nutrigran bars, fruit snacks, ice cream and the occasional fruit smoothies.
from the experts: in the moments where your child(ren) are ready and willing to try new foods, praise is a must! it is recommended that for direction or reprimand, there be five ‘portions’ of praise. thank them for coming to the table, for trying something new, let them know you appreciate them sitting still and just being there with you during the meal. positive reinforcement will encourage them to model that behavior more often and eventually consistently. as parents, we have to remember to be consistent as well.
2. turn their interests into meals
as much as I hate his connection with media and electronics, big A has learned and grown so much thanks to television shows and movies. even though most of what he watches is geared towards education in social, mental and emotional communication, one of the greatest benefits television has had is getting big A interested in other food. any of the parents here familiar with the minions and their obsession with bananas – there the whole reason big A agreed to try them on three different occasions. plain, frozen, and chocolate covered (with extra chocolate to distract from the taste).
go-gurt has always branded their boxes with characters correlated with cinematic releases – for that reason alone, big A decided he wanted to try yogurt when he was five. usually I hate companies who sell to kids knowing that a large percentage of parents will buy it if their kids ask. for me, it was 100% about the excitement on his face when he saw Spongebob on the box. that excitement trumped any worry he may have had about trying something new and now yogurt is always on our grocery list. Popeye is responsible for his acceptance of spinach and garfield inspired him to come to me and ask to make lasagna. he even asked to cut up sausage to put in it; and ate two servings of it!
[despite his total dislike for all things meat, he is oven to pepperoni on pizza, pizza bagels, pizza rolls and thought the diced sausage was pepperoni. I wasn’t going to kill his vibe and stop him from trying something new, so I went with it]
from the experts: food journals are a great way to keep your little humans progress on track. it can also be a fun activity for you and your awesome autistic to do together. draw pictures of the foods as they are added to the journal, track reactions and even a poop journal. both are useful in keeping everyone up to date on what your child likes/dislikes and how it effects them.
3. one bite at a time
our children are who they are, and we should validate it every opportunity we can. trying new things can be scary for anyone: on the spectrum, off the spectrum, young, old, etc. it’s important to take things slow and move at their pace. for this reason, when I approach big A with new food to try, I have a one bite rule. I ask him to give everything new a fair shot – no saying he doesn’t like it just because he doesn’t want to eat it again – and that he finish the bite. if I can tell the texture or taste is really bothering him, I’m okay with him not finishing it. like I said before, forcing food very rarely has positive outcomes. as parents we have to encourage and support all of our awesome autistic’s endeavors. remember to be patient, our little humans are trying as hard as they can and everything takes time.
from the experts: baby steps are so important! small successes are still successes, that being said, it’s vital not to push our luck. if our little humans are behaving at meal time and coming to the table with a willingness to explore new things – we have to meet them where they are.
it’s a marathon, not a race
remember that change doesn’t happen overnight. be cautious of all sensory issues and other influences that may effect your child(ren)’s diet. if you’re a parent that struggles with more than one mealtime behavior matter, there are two important things to remember:
- prioritize!- sit down and make a list of all the things you’d like to work on with your little human. once the list is made, put them in order of importance and check them off one at a time. changes to routine take time, the goal is to make effective, positive change – there’s no deadline.
- set the example- our kids are always watching and learning from what we do. one of the best ways to encourage better mealtime behaviors is to set the example. I can’t tell you how many of big A’s creations I’ve had to try in solidarity with him trying new food. like every relationship, it’s a give and take- our expectations can’t be higher for them than for ourselves.
be sure to click the source below to read more on eating habits and mealtime behavior, good luck mama and papa bears!