Anyone familiar with Autism has a general idea about the narrow food selections made by most children, but it is the parents who have a sincere appreciation for the topic. Many parents cringe at the thought of preparing meals, fearing a meltdown when dinner comes to the table. It is for this reason many children eat similar foods each day. However limited food acceptance is so much more than that—it can cause nutrient deficiencies which, paired with other health and lifestyle factors, can be detrimental to the health of a child on the spectrum. Children on the spectrum tend to have poor appetites, prefer to drink rather than eat, refuse new foods, accept a very limited variety of foods, crave carbohydrates, and have a need for sameness and rituals around eating. This can quickly turn mealtimes into an unpleasant atmosphere—for both child and parent. As a parent, it is important to keep mealtime tone light and pleasant, and gain an understanding of what your child may be going through.
Did you know?
Over 75% of children with ASD have symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), which often causes difficulty when it comes to accepting new foods. A child with SPD may react to all or a few of the following stimuli:
VISUAL: A child may prefer certain colors, not allow foods to touch, or refuse large portions.
TACTILE: May be unwilling to touch food with hands (which is a critical step to eating new foods), rejects new foods, gags, chokes, or vomits.
SMELL: May be fussy and overwhelmed by food preparation and cooking before mealtime even begins. May gag or vomit at mealtime.
TASTE: Strong flavors can trigger the gag reflex in children with taste hypersensitivity. A child may prefer bland foods or specific flavors.
AUDITORY: Eating can create sounds that are overwhelming. Child may prefer soft or liquid foods to avoid the sounds made by chewing hard, crunchy foods. People talking at the table, environmental sounds, tv.
All of these possible road bumps and more can lead to picky eating, or the more serious, problem feeding. For children on the spectrum, poor food acceptance can become a contributing factor to the child’s overall physical and mental health. A poor diet may lead to stunted growth, poor muscle mass, slower metabolism, decreased mental alertness, comprehension, and concentration. Follow these tips to get you started in the right direction and ask for help from your dietitian or other therapists to work on mealtime behaviors more specifically for your child.
Tips for improvement:
- Minimize distractions during meal time. No tv, books, music, or phones.
- Avoid grazing/excessive snacking during the day.
- Create a [healthy] routine.
- Positive mealtime dynamics (no begging or bribing by the parents).
- Create a proper physical environment to encourage your child to use a chair, utensils, and napkin.
- Provide smaller than usual servings to avoid overstimulation with new foods. Start with one tablespoon.
- Avoid food burnout. Do not serve the same food every day—change at least one property of that food. Let’s say your child has only been eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches lately. Add extra peanut butter to the sandwich one day. The next day, cut the sandwich in triangles instead of squares. The next day, use a different jelly or bread. Try a crunchy peanut butter. Try a different brand of ingredients. Serve the sandwich on a different plate, etc.
- Children on the spectrum especially need broad diets to improve their function. Many children may also need additional nutrients.
- Take baby steps to work towards a healthier diet. Any improvement is good!
- Call Ingredients For Health for a free screening to see if your child can benefit from nutrition support. Virtual appointments are available worldwide.
This dinner can be fairly quick to make, especially if you are using canned butternut squash and frozen broccoli, but kids love it because, well, it’s mac & cheese! Broccoli always tastes better with cheese, but if your children won’t eat broccoli yet, leave it out and serve it on the side. This recipe also leaves room for a bit of improvisation—try using pureed cauliflower in the cheese sauce instead of the butternut squash, or add zucchini chunks instead of broccoli. Even try whole wheat pasta. Simply changing the shape of the pasta each time you make the recipe can be a big step for some children.
- 2 cups uncooked short pasta
- 1 cup butternut squash, peeled and cubed (frozen or canned can also be used)
- 2/3 cup low fat milk
- ¼ tsp ground mustard
- Pinch of garlic powder
- Salt & pepper
- 2 Tbsp flour
- 1 Tbsp butter
- 4 oz mild cheddar cheese, grated
- 2 cups cooked chopped broccoli (I like to use thawed frozen broccoli)
- Cook the pasta according to the package directions.
- Meanwhile, prepare the squash. If using fresh or frozen squash, steam in a covered pot with an inch of water until soft; about 10 minutes on medium-high heat. Mash the squash with a fork until smooth. (If using canned squash, it will already be mashed).
- In a medium saucepan add the milk, mustard, garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Whisk until combined.
- Add the flour and butter to the milk mixture and cook on medium low heat. Be sure to whisk the mixture often to prevent lumps from forming.
- Gradually add the grated cheese into the milk mixture while whisking constantly until all of the cheese is combined. Add the mashed butternut squash and combine.
- Add the pasta and broccoli to the cheese sauce, mix well, and enjoy!
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*Marina Bedrossian, RDN, CDN of Ingredients For Health provides virtual nutrition sessions worldwide for parents who are looking to make improvements in their child’s health in order to enhance their overall quality of life. She is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who uses food as medicine to help children on the spectrum thrive.
**Food and headshot photos courtesy of Ingredients for Health
For more advice from Marina on autism and nutrition: