Mealtime with children can generally be difficult, especially if they’re picky eaters. Prepping a meal for a child with autism can be even more strenuous due to additional factors related to autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Kids with ASD tend to have food aversions and more obsessive behaviors that can impact food interests and eating habits. We understand how difficult it may be to introduce new and healthy meals, while still keeping your child happy and fed. Below, we share some reasons mealtime may be more difficult for children with autism and offer some tips to make the food prep process smoother. Also, we share a few recipes to help enhance mealtime for your kids!
What Makes Mealtime Difficult?
Mealtime for children with autism can be challenging for multiple reasons. First, kids with ASD rely heavily on predictability. Introducing new foods can interrupt their accepted pattern. Change can be difficult for children with autism, so when introducing new foods, it’s important to be patient. Emily Kuschner, a clinical psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, recommends utilizing a step-based approach when introducing new meals. Try investigating new foods with your child, instead of trying to get them to consume the new food outright. Use strategy and take small steps until your child feels more comfortable with trying new options. When choosing a new food, try a meal that has ingredients already in your child’s diet. For example, if your child already eats peanut butter on crackers, introduce them to a peanut butter sandwich!
A second factor that can make mealtime difficult for kids with autism can be sensory issues, which can affect a child’s interest in trying new foods. Some children avoid certain textures, while others may not consume foods of a certain color. Sensory issues with meals are slightly more difficult to overcome, as they can cause discomfort and anxiety for children. Dr. Kuschner recommends incorporating previously problematic foods in different preparations to make the texture more manageable and tolerable. An alternative preparation, such as blending or pureeing, may eliminate the issue of food texture! For example, if your child dislikes raw tomatoes, you can try smashing and/or cooking the tomatoes.
Another factor that leads to difficult mealtimes is a child’s lack of appetite. Parents, teachers, or babysitters may allow kids to eat across the day to ensure a child is getting the proper amount of nourishment. This grazing practice blocks the ability for a child to incorporate mealtime into their comfortable daily routine. Set more concrete eating times for meals and snacks to get your child into a routine that they find reassuring with their meals.
Lastly, a lower attention span may cause mealtime challenges for kids. Some kids with autism have a hard time focusing on one task for an extended amount of time, which can lead to mealtime becoming arduous and stressful for both kids and parents. An easy fix to this issue is reducing the food portions served to your child, which will make mealtimes shorter. It is important for your child to eat adequately sized meals but establishing attainable eating goals is another critical factor. Sometimes parents may over serve food to their children as a tactic to encourage eating. Smaller portions allow children to finish quickly and move to the next attention-grabbing activity.
One way to retain your child’s interest for meals is attempting to make mealtime more fun and interactive! Involve your child more by offering choices as recommended by Dr. Kuschner. Instead of choosing broccoli and preparing it, ask your child if they would prefer broccoli, carrots, or peas, and let them pick. By giving children options, they are given more control over their meal.
When it comes to finding new meal ideas for children with autism, some parents may struggle due to the individual needs of their children. The following recipes are healthy, vitamin packed, and (hopefully) picky eater approved! As with any recipe, please take your child’s dietary needs into consideration and adjust the recipes as necessary.
Meal Tips and Ideas
- Vegetable Fried Rice the Customizable Healthy Dish
For children that are vegetarian or need more veggies in their diets, vegetable fried rice is a great meal to try! It is easy to make and full of vitamins. This recipe is packed with peas, carrots, and brown rice. Brown rice is a whole grain that is rich in fiber. Carrots and peas are rich in vitamin A. It is easy to customize this dish to add more healthy ingredients or remove ingredients based on dietary needs. For example, eggs can be added to this dish for extra protein. More veggies can also be added, like bell peppers, broccoli, or mushrooms. Vegetable fried rice is easy to make and full of vitamins!
- Veggie Nacho Cups a Great Gluten Free Snack
Southwest veggie nacho cups are a great dish idea for gluten-free kids! This recipe replaces tortilla chips with mini sweet peppers as the nacho cups. It also includes substantial protein in the black beans and shredded chicken. Some other ingredients to add are avocado and additional vegetables. Southwest veggie nacho cups are also easily customized!
- Creamy Pasta with Broccoli a Sensory Aversion Friendly Recipe
Another delicious recipe is creamy pasta with broccoli, which is a great meal for children that prefer softer foods based on their sensory preferences. This recipe is simple to prepare and can be adjusted to include more protein, such as chicken or ground turkey. To make this recipe healthier or gluten free, the pasta can be replaced with chickpea pasta. The broccoli can also be cut into smaller pieces for kids that may have some sensory aversions.
- Salmon Baked Nuggets a Fun Nutrient Filled Recipe
Need to add more vitamins and minerals to your child’s diet? Crispy salmon baked nuggets are a unique food for kids! Salmon is packed with vitamin A, vitamin D, calcium, and potassium. Crispy salmon baked nuggets use bite-sized pieces of breaded and baked salmon to deliver flavor and nutrients in a fun way! Since many children gravitate towards chicken nuggets, kids are more inclined to try this dish, because of the salmon’s breaded and bite-sized presentation. This recipe can be served plain or with the dip of your choice!
Additional Mealtime Support
We hope you get the chance to try these delicious recipes with your kids and utilize some of our tips along the way! If your child has trouble eating some of these recipes, try separating the ingredients in the recipe to provide your child a different mealtime experience that may be more agreeable. So instead of creamy pasta with chicken and broccoli, serve the chicken alone with two separated sides of pasta and broccoli!
If you are still experiencing feeding challenges while implementing these tips and recipes, seek advice from your child’s clinical team or make an appointment with a feeding therapist. Feeding therapy investigates the various factors that may cause hesitancy from your child during mealtime. If you are a current client with HHF, feeding therapy is a service we offer. For more information on scheduling an appointment with an HHF feeding therapist, speak directly with your child’s RBT or BCBA.
About Helping Hands Family
Helping Hands Family (HHF) is a growing autism treatment provider in the Northeast. We offer personalized autism therapy to kids either in-clinic, in-home, or in-school. Our team is comprised of autism professionals with decades of clinical experience. HHF is devoted to delivering customized treatment plans through top-rated programs based on each child’s unique needs. Our programs help kids with autism progress socially and support new ways of learning and interacting with the world!