Calm Your Child’s Anxiety Over Trying New Foods
First and foremost, it’s important to rule out any medical drivers or food allergies that could be causing a dislike of particular flavors or food groups. Your child on the spectrum may avoid particular foods because they upset their stomachs.
However, they may not be able to describe or identify this connection. Consult your pediatrician to investigate possible allergies or complicating medical conditions before starting any new food regime.
Once you confirm that medical issues aren’t behind your child’s picky eating, you should keep one basic rule in mind: Avoid making food a source of conflict within your family.
It is very common for picky eating to lead to dinner table arguments and battles of will between children and parents. Arguing or trying to force a child to eat usually makes the situation worse. Instead, take a moment to think creatively and try to explore the possible causes behind your child’s dislike of new or particular foods.
Many children with autism dislike trying new things. If your child with autism seems afraid or wary of new foods, think of ways to manage this anxiety.
Instead of asking your child to taste the new food outright, try to look at the new food together. From there, you could suggest that the two of you smell it and/or touch it. These are great opportunities for playing games and having fun with food.
Sometimes it helps to have your child mix the new food with a familiar and preferred food for this first taste. We’ve seen this gradual approach decrease anxiety about new foods by increasing familiarity.
It’s also important to give your child as many choices as possible so they can feel in control of their meals. You can present a wide array of food options at mealtime, and then invite your child to choose three foods to put on his plate. This approach will help your child with autism know that it’s okay to have preferences around food and that variety is important.
Encouraging choice and control within a defined window can help avoid arguments, tears and meltdowns at the dinner table. At the same time, it encourages a more varied and well-formed diet. Some kids on the autism spectrum have sensory difficulties with food that go beyond flavor. For example, a child may dislike the way a cherry tomato turns from solid to squishy in her mouth, though she likes the flavor. It can be difficult for children to separate out that good taste from the disturbing texture.
One pitfall we’ve see many parents succumbing to is the reward system. Yes, the age-old “if you eat your broccoli, you can have ice cream.” Though this trick may work as a quick fix, it won’t produce the desired results in the long run. Your child with autism may choke down the broccoli to get the reward, but this plan is not likely to increase his preference for eating broccoli. Instead, we want your kids to enjoy new foods and form more flexible, healthy eating habits. So it’s important to help him find solutions. Most importantly, the more fun, the better!
Bowl with watermelons. Make faces on pizzas with vegetables or pepperoni. Paint with pasta sauce. Experiment with how ingredients change color or consistency when mixed together. Each of these activities will help a child become more comfortable around new and different foods, create opportunities for trying new tastes and keep food discussions positive.
Make mealtime an opportunity for flexibility, education, choices and – most of all – fun. This is one time that it’s okay to play with your food!