Autism and Picky Eating: Help Your Child Build Healthy Eating Habits

By Ashley Williams, Ph.D., LABA, BCBA
Senior Clinical Director, BCI

Does your child only eat one brand of chicken nuggets or refuse anything other than a single flavor of yogurt? Do you pack the same lunch for your child, day after day after oh-so-tiring and monotonous day?

With the school year underway, now is the time to take a look at your little one’s eating habits to see what you can do to make mealtime a success. While picky eating is a common problem among all kids, the issue can especially challenge children on the autism spectrum. Here, I share a few strategies that can help. Keep in mind, though, that if your child’s picking eating interferes with their ability to take in enough calories or nutrients, you should reach out to your pediatrician right away.

Set a Goal

As a family, pinpoint what your goal is when addressing picky eating. What’s something specific you want to address?

Do you want your child to waste less? Do you want them to try new foods? Do you want to try more meals and recipes that all family members can enjoy together? Identify and set a specific goal. That way, you can figure out what strategies and steps you need to take to achieve it.

Think About Solutions

Take time to plan and think critically about the goal. For example, if you want to cut down on your child’s snacking, take a step back to consider what it is about snacking that concerns you. Is it that they won’t eat dinner? Or they fill up on foods that lack nutrition? In either case, consider what’s available as a snack. Is there a food you typically offer at dinner that you could offer as a snack? That way, if your child does “fill up” on the snack, that’s OK.

When evaluating your concerns regarding the behavior, be sure to look at a span of time, instead of just one meal or even one day. Give yourself enough time to establish a broader sense of their caloric intake and nutritional needs.

Consider Your Environment

When we think of picky eating, we often focus on the moments in which food is in front of the child. But many factors that influence behavior actually start before this.

Preparation and activity before a meal have a huge impact on the likelihood of eating, including the quantity and variety of food your child eats. Think carefully about the environment you’ve set up for meals and snacks at home. Variables include where your child sits, how you present the food, how much food you present, and more.

Limit Distractions

Regarding the physical setup, have your child sit at a table where they can focus on eating as the primary activity. Are there distractions?

While allowing screen time during snacks and meals may help your child stay seated, screen time can also detract from their attention to eating and to their own internal cues. These cues are important for your child to notice as they explore new foods and how much food to eat.

Aim to minimize distractions. Doing so will help you notice what scenarios lead to more success at mealtime.

Give Your Child Choices

Are you planning to have your child participate in preparing the food or choosing an aspect of the meal? Allowing your child to participate in the preparation and decision-making that go into the snack or meal can help increase motivation to eat the meal.

Perhaps your child can get out ingredients for the meal or hold the bowl while you stir. Allow your child to make small decisions along the way that build buy-in, without compromising the boundaries that you’ve identified for the meal.

For example, you may have decided that the meal will include some fruit at dinner (a food type that is often involved in picky eating). Allow your child some choice in getting to this outcome by letting them know, “We’re going to have chicken drumsticks with a small bit of fruit. Do you want blueberries or watermelon as the fruit?”

This provides boundaries, while still giving your child an opportunity to choose. It’s likely that having chosen blueberries, for example, will lead to a greater likelihood of eating them.

Let Them Serve Themselves

Another way of promoting choice and control is by allowing your child to serve themselves. Your child may not be ready to prepare the meal from start to finish, but they may be able to sprinkle toppings or help squirt dipping sauce on to their plate.

By allowing your child to make small choices throughout the preparation of the meal, you’re deciding what is served (such as tacos), with room for your child’s opinion and preferences to be considered.

Identify Sensory Issues

Some aspects of preparing and presenting food can tell us more about food selectivity and picky eating, and can provide us with more information for the future. In fact, you may discover that your child outright refuses certain foods or entire food categories.

Take a closer look at which foods are left on the plate or pushed away. Try to identify certain sensory and texture properties of foods that are often refused, such as squishy or tough foods.

As adults, we often forget that certain foods, particularly produce, don’t actually taste the same each time we eat them. A tomato purchased at peak ripeness in-season may taste very different from a similar-looking tomato past its prime off-season. For children, this may lead to refusal, often without a corresponding explanation as to why the food was refused. In the future, this could lead to even more refusal.

Of course, there’s not much we can do to minimize variability in produce, but this knowledge can help us understand some of the shifts in preference. And, just as our own food preferences change over time, so do our children’s. We may never know why hot dogs moved from the favorite list to the repulsive list. But a strategic approach to food goals that involves stopping and observing over a period of time, while limiting distractions and making choice part of your child’s eating routine, can make a real difference—and over time, help make family meals more enjoyable for everyone.

Looking for more tips on raising kids with autism? Dr. Temple Grandin shares some of what worked for her as a child in her latest conversation with us on All Autism Talk. Listen to the podcast.