Nutrition and Autism: A Guide for Picky Eaters
Jenny, the Autism Nutritionist, solves picky eating, sensory food aversions, and other eating barriers autism children experience. As a registered dietitian, Jenny will help you create the best nutrition and meal plan for your child with autism.
How to build a diverse healthy diet for an autistic picky eater:
The best way to introduce new foods to an autistic child who doesn’t want to eat is to be strategic. Think about how your family likes to eat. What are some of your favorite foods or places to eat? The answers to these questions can help you identify foods to focus on when trying to expand your child’s diet. Spinach is very nutritious, but if your family doesn’t eat spinach often, it’s not a practical target.
What we can learn from this valuable research is that if a child is given consistent and adequate nourishment, they in turn will have the energy to focus in the classroom, retain information, and score better on assessments. Belot and James (2009) found that students who were offered freshly made meals at school scored higher on English and science tests than students who did not have access to these meals. Not only does this give the child the opportunity to understand the curriculum well, but it also supports their level of self confidence and self efficacy.
With such solid evidence that nutrition matters, let’s talk a little more about how we can meet our children’s nutritional needs.
How to get your autistic child to eat new foods:
Typically kids might need to meet a new food over a dozen times before feeling comfortable putting it in their mouths. This number is often multiplied in kids with special needs. The more exposures to a new food your child gets, the better, so invite your child to join when you’re cooking and food shopping. Read books about new foods and incorporate food in games and art projects. Getting to know a food outside of mealtimes increases comfort. Many parents tell me that after repeatedly ignoring a new food at meals, their child will suddenly decide to nibble during food play.
How to tackle texture aversions to expand the diet for kids with autism:
Studies suggest that texture is at the root of food selectivity for anywhere from 30 to almost 60% of kids with autism (1,3). If sensory issues are driving your child’s picky eating, focus on the textures he likes when introducing new foods. Offer foods like carrot coins or nuts to kids who love crunch. Increase exposure to new flavors by adding veggie purees or spices into hot cereals, scrambled eggs, and smoothies for kids who prefer smooth textures. Once you’ve expanded your child’s repertoire of preferred textures, you can then introduce small amounts of new food textures alongside preferred foods. For example, incorporate soft chunks to a favorite smooth dish or use a preferred food as a vehicle for a new one.
How to manage nutrient deficiencies and boost vitamin intake for autistic child:
Parents often come to me worried about nutrient deficiencies. It’s a valid concern; kids with autism are more prone than their peers to having low vitamin and mineral levels (4). I find many kids on the spectrum have low protein intakes. Usually they dislike the texture. While there is a role for vitamin and mineral supplementation in autism, supplements don’t provide everything the body needs. That’s why my goal is to optimize a child’s diet, to make the most out of the foods they eat.
There are several ways to accomplish this:
- Serve nutrient dense foods that are similar to foods your child loves (will your chicken nugget lover try spinach nuggets?).
- Boost smoothies, hot cereals, and baked goods with a nutritious powder like Healthy Height, which provides the most important nutrients – including a generous dose of protein – for kids. Healthy Height can also be served alongside meals and snacks. It’s not replacing favorite foods, but adding important nutrition to your child’s current diet.
- Model what you want to see by eating a variety of foods yourself. Parents’ fruit and vegetable intake is the strongest predictor of a child’s consumption of those foods.
- Finally, always have nutritious foods accessible. I can’t tell you how many times a parent has told me they’ve walked into the kitchen to find their child munching on a new fruit or veggie they grabbed off the counter.
How to respond to ritualistic eating behaviors and brand-specific preferences:
Some kids on the spectrum are loyal to specific brands, some only feel comfortable eating in certain places using certain utensils. These ritualistic eating preferences can limit where and what a child eats. Autistic children respond well to mealtime structure, so establish your own routine for serving meals and snacks. Create - and stick to! - a schedule for meals. While it is your role as the parent to manage the what, where, and when of mealtimes, do give your child agency. She can pick her own plate, set the table, and make simple decisions about the menu.
I like to lower the pressure for kids with brand-specific preferences by making a game out of trying something new. Hide a new shape of cracker in the bag of your child’s favorites. Challenge them to find - and maybe even taste! - the special piece.
Your child may be facing just one of these picky eating challenges or maybe all five. Wherever your child is at, start small, go slow, make one change at a time. If after trying something for a while, it seems like you’re on the wrong track, try something new. Your child’s eating behaviors have been around for a long time, so they will likely take time to redirect. Be patient. Keep at it. And don’t hesitate to reach out for professional support .
- Ahearn, W. H., Castine, T., Nault, K., & Green, G. (2001). An assessment of food acceptance in children with autism or pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31, 505–511. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
- LRCSS Feeding Problems In Autism" a cited source
- Field, D., Garland, M., & Williams, K. (2003). Correlates of specific childhood feeding problems. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 39, 299–304; https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1046/j.1440-1754.2003.00151.x