Picky eating is a serious issue for many children on the spectrum, whose sensory needs may stop them from trying a variety of healthy foods. Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, author of the children’s GF/CF cookbook “the Kitchen Classroom”, cooking instructor and mom of a child on the spectrum offers the following tips:
1. Get your child involved in cooking. Have your child press garlic with you, squeeze lemons and snip basil. When your child is a part of the food transformation, from beginning to end, he or she is gradually introduced to a range of smells and textures and is more likely to tolerate them. Be sure to get them involved in the creation of their meal.
2. When introducing new foods, start small and build. Starting with small amounts of new flavors and textures is a safe bet. You’ll be able to easily identify what your child likes and dislikes, and adjust accordingly. With vegetables, find one that your child will tolerate – carrot sticks, pepper slices, etc. – and serve a few pieces at every meal. Each week, add one new kind of vegetable to your child’s plate at breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.
3. Play with their food. With different colors come different nutrients for your child. Create an “Eat a Rainbow” week where you try and find as many colorful fruits and vegetables as you can. When children reject one color in particular (most of the time, it’s green), it can mean that their body actually really needs the nutrients found in that food. Break the cycle by getting them to eat more of it. Sneak the food into a blended fruit and vegetable juice. Or puree them (think zucchini) and integrate them into gluten- and casein-free breads or muffins.
- I don’t like things that are hot (ways around this challenge)
Many of our children are sensitive to temperature and this problem is not so difficult to solve. First of all, raw vegetables and fruits are just as healthy, if not more so, than cooked ones, so fill up your child’s plate with them! Nuts and seeds are also great nutrient-dense foods for your child to enjoy. When serving cooked dishes, let the food cool until it is just warm before offering your child a bite.
- I don’t like that smell (tips for disguising or altering odor)
Food is made up of tastes, textures and aromas and children who are defensive about smell may reject the food on the smell alone. I encourage parents to get children into the cooking process and to gradually introduce children to a range of smells. When a recipe calls for cinnamon or vanilla, encourage the child to take in a big whiff before adding it to the recipe. Have your child press garlic with you, squeeze lemons, snip basil, add curry, coriander and a variety of other spices to your food. As you offer your child opportunities to smell a variety of spices in a gradual way, he/she may begin to tolerate them and even seek them out.
- I don’t like the texture (tips for disguising or altering texture)
To begin with, find which textures that your child can tolerate best and serve more varieties of food with that texture. To introduce textures that are more difficult for your child, start with a very small amount.
4. Seek support. It’s common for some autistic children to have difficulty eating, chewing and swallowing certain types of food due to texture. A feeding therapist can create a program for your child to help build his/her tolerance, and offer ideas on how to ensure that your child is getting the right amount and variety of nutrients – for instance, blending and pureeing might do the trick!
5. Use positive reinforcement. It’s so important for your child to have a good relationship with food. Offer praise whenever your child takes a bite of something new that’s important to his or her diet – it takes off some of the pressure that can be associated with mealtime, enabling your child to enjoy eating with you and your family.