The picky eater and how to broaden their palate

Very few autism parents have an easy time when it comes to food. For some kids just getting calories into them is an issue. Other kids will only eat a really limited range of foods, other kids will only eat crunchy foods.

Sometimes kids will eat well for a while and then suddenly reject everything.

Yes, food can be a problem.

Also, because what’s in the food can either help or harm your child’s neurological development, we are always looking for how to optimize organic and brain-building foods. But we know that this is a slow process and as with everything in autism, we have to start where the child is, not where we want them to be.

The majority of food issues are actually sensory issues.

Hence, the crunchy vs. soft food challenge. Hence also, why kids will sometimes eat one type of food at home, another type of food in school, and sometimes no food at all in other places.

It comes down to how comfortable and safe they feel and so the more unfamiliar a place all the more sensorially challenging a place the less likely they are to eat well there and in some cases they seem to go on hunger strike.

So, as with all things in autism, the first thing is observation.

Can you answer these questions:

  • What does your child most enjoy eating?
  • What environment is your child the happiest in?
  • What does he or she eat in their happiest environment?
  • What do they eat in less good environments?
  • Is there a place where they won’t eat at all?
  • Are they only into crunchy food?
  • Will they only eat junky sugary foods?
  • What kind of packaging do they like their food to come in?
  • How does what they eat affect their mood?
  • Do they seem hyper active after any particular foods?

If you are going to try new things, then obviously, you want to introduce them in the environment where the child is the happiest.

If you want to introduce something new, can you put it in packaging that the kid already likes or find something that looks very similar?

If they are crunchy food people, can we expand on the theme of crunch?

Can we always have a variety of healthy foods around so the kid gets used to them long before they try them?

Is there a person, the kid really loves and trusts who can constantly be nibbling on things you’d like your kid to try?

What you’ll get from all these questions is the concept of observation followed by preparation. Getting the kid used to other forms of food being stored, eaten, and prepared in safe environments by people they love and with no pressure on the kid to try.

This is about habituation.

Notice while these foods are being prepared if the child seems to have a genuinely revolted or disgusted response.

Especially to the smell.

The two main culprits for this are eggs and fish.

We know many kids who just flat out can’t take the scents of these two foods. So, anyone cooking them around the kid will immediately run into a sensory brick wall.

And getting the kid to try them will result in the kid rejecting lots of other foods.

Time in nature is always good. If you can begin to learn the edible plants in your area and begin to browse on them yourself, your child will likely follow suit. We have had really good success with this and go into it in detail in another module in this section for strategies on eating greens.

If your child is package driven this can also help you. The module how to wean from junk food goes into this in depth.

How much time does your child spend around animals? Feeding animals automatically gets the child interested in the variety of foods that different animals eat. No one will make the child eat dog food, cat food, grass, hay, birdseed (although the latter being mostly millet is actually quite good for you), it will create an interest in, and a conversation around food in general and promotes curiosity.

Curiosity here is the operative word. Are you curious about food? Are you curious about life? If the answer to both of those is: “Not really”, then how do you expect a child who is basically locked into their own world to show a greater interest than you?

You have to create an atmosphere and an environment of discovery.

If you do that, it will begin to permeate your child’s life in every way. This will include broadening the palate.

It happens gradually and over time, but it does happen if you and those the child loves and trusts model this curiosity and exploration yourselves.

In this general climate, you can then think about specific strategies as outlined in the following modules.