Feeding and mealtimes with a child with Autism can be a very challenging and stressful experience.
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder can often be fussy eaters and may reject entire food groups, or eat only certain textures or colours of food. Many parents just want to ensure their children are getting enough nutrients for optimal growth and development and are at the stage that they will do almost anything to get their children to eat. For parents this means expanding your child’s diet may seem almost impossible, however here are the 10 top mealtime tips to help you to feel more at ease and help to create an optimal environment for your fussy eaters.
Set a schedule
A schedule does 2 things: it trains your fussy eaters’ appetite and expectations
Limit eating times to 3 meals and 2-3 snacks and don’t allow anything but water between meals. Treat snacks as a formal meal, too – set a pre-determined time and sit at the table or another area specific to eating. Creating a visual schedule may be helpful for younger children. It’s okay if the schedule varies a bit day-today. The main idea is to limit grazing and prevent your child from setting mealtimes. This is your job, Mum and Dad!
Eat at the table
Or the counter. Consistently eating at a space that is reserved just for eating will reinforce the mealtime routine, and limit additional distractions. If your child doesn’t want to sit at the table or counter, start with a small goal and work up to a more consistent routine. Set a timer for 1 or 2 minutes, whatever is achievable for your child to start with.
Clear the table of anything not related to the meal. Turn the TV off and keep any distractions (favourite toys, special foods) out of sight. This again helps kids to focus on eating at mealtimes and reinforces a mealtime routine. This also encourages kids to pay attention to their innate hunger and fullness cues.
Kids learn by example. Modelling is a huge way kids learn how to eat. Family and friends are known to be extremely influential factors in what and how a child eats. If you serve a new food, have it alongside your child.
Be the boss
You decide what, when, and where meals are served. Serve one meal the whole family can eat. Be sure to include something everyone likes, even if it’s just a side such as a buttered roll, or plain boiled rice.
After the meal (or snack) is finished, the kitchen is closed. Remember, stick to that schedule! If your child doesn’t like the meal and chooses not to eat much, just remind him that the next meal or snack is coming in a few hours. One skipped meal will not be detrimental to your child, when you are offering food consistently each day.
Include your child in simple decisions like selecting which plate to use or choosing between two different fruits to have at snack. Participating in decision making helps your child feel involved and increases chances he or she will eat!
A simple choice sounds something like: “You can have yoghurt or cheese in your lunchbox.”
Cooking, playing with food, reading about food, talking about it – all of these activities benefit the sensory system and help picky kids feel more comfortable around new food. Do you know what that means? Kids are more likely to eat! So take your kids shopping, let them help in the kitchen, make some food art, or plant a garden. Kids can help out in the kitchen by washing vegetables or getting them out of the fridge. A simple game of tic tac toe with sliced cucumber and carrot could be an easy activity to start with.
Serve 1 and 1
Serve one new food alongside at least one preferred food at every meal/snack. Offering a food your child ensures that your child always has something to eat.
Your child needs to know that there is always something safe to eat. But your child also won’t learn to eat new foods if he/she never encounters them, so be sure to provide those opportunities. An example could be a safe fruit served on a skewer with another new fruit. Or chips served with a serve of nuts.
Cheerlead and ignore
Reinforce positive eating behaviour with an immediate enthusiastic compliment. Try not to use food as a reward. Ignore any behaviours you don’t want to see repeated.
Vary and rotate
Variety is the spice of life. And the trick to keeping your child’s diet as diversified as possible helps with fussy eaters. Rotate new foods, preferred foods, and cooking techniques, trying not to serve the same food two days in a row. An example could be to change the type of pasta each time you serve Bolognese. Or serve a certain fruit with the skin on, without the skin on, in a salad, frozen, in a smoothie, or with yoghurt.
Remember, the addition of new foods won’t happen overnight. It will take time and patience, a relaxed eating environment, and a LOT of exposure. However, the good news is it IS possible.
If you are feeling at your wit’s end and need some suggestions to expand your child’s diet, give us a call at Generation Physio.
We have a friendly team of professionals that are dedicated to changing the lives of our clients. All of our clinicians are mobile and come to your own home to conduct an examination. Give us a call on 1300 122 884 to book a consultation today.
Written by Soraya Cunningham