The dinner table can be a war zone especially with a child with special needs. Professionals and parents often feel defeated when trying to introduce new foods or even maintaining a balanced diet. What can we do to assist in making mealtime pleasant?
- Eliminate Distractions: Bring dinner back to the table. It is hard to rein a child in for trying new foods when they are running back in forth in front of the TV. Sit in an area that helps the child focus on the meal that is taking place at that time. There are some kids that are overwhelmed by too many people at the table so also take that into consideration. This is especially true of the school cafeteria. Many students are much more successful when eating in a classroom with a smaller number of students.
- Be Patient: It is ridiculous to encourage patience in a time that is so frustrating BUT realize it takes lots of time. Even children that are not on the autism spectrum take 12 exposures or more to new foods before trying. Most of us, even with typical children, give up way before then. Keep bringing out those new foods and continue to have them on the child's plate or at least within sight. The more familiar the food, the more likely the individual will be to try it. Even touching or smelling a new food can be a big step so take it slow with these changes.
- Be Sneaky: Find creative ways of introducing foods or at least add more nutrients. We all know that children with autism are unbelievable at their ability to tell whether their mac and cheese came out of the 'blue box' or not but that doesn't mean their taste buds can't change. Slowly try to incorporate new tastes into already favored foods.
- Show the Progress: Sometimes telling the individual ‘take one bite’ or ‘eat this and then you get that’ isn’t enough. Show with pictures or even the actual food. Seeing that this food comes first then they can have something they enjoy. When using these steps realize that some children may have to work up to taking a bite and may have to lick or smell the food for a while to get more familiar with it.
- Use the Love of Knowledge: High-functioning/Asperger’s individuals often have a knack for facts and information. Use this interest to help progress their eating skills. Learn the food pyramid and show how this translates into the food they eat. Use ‘Social Stories’ (by Carol Gray) to help inform them of why this is important and how they can put it into practice.
- Consult Your Doctor About Diets: Lots of individuals have benefited from food changes such as gluten-free/casein-free diets. It is wonderful if there are benefits seen but use caution when further restricting an already picky eater. Continue working with a pediatrician to ensure that all nutritional needs are being met. Even things such as iron levels have been shown to affect attention so make sure the foods are meeting the needs of the child. Talk to the doctor about multi-vitamins that may be needed.
- Be Aware of Sensory Needs: Many children have sensory preferences when it comes to foods. This means that they might like crunchy crackers or salty foods. Also, it could be that slimy foods make them gag or throw up. Keep this in mind and consult with an Occupational Therapist that specializes in working with sensory differences.
A few ways to incorporate new foods:
- Cook and blend fruits/veggies into a puree (like baby food). These can be easily added to things your child already eats. Add squash puree to mac and cheese, spinach to spaghetti sauce, applesauce to pancake batter, etc.
- Make food fun! Use an interest in letters by cutting sandwiches into the alphabet. Cookie cutters and ice cube trays with shapes/characters can be useful tools in the kitchen to make things look more appealing whether its jello or meatloaf.
- Share recipes with other parents and professionals. Find recipes that have worked for others and get fresh ideas. (Below is one our favored recipes and we would love to hear some of yours!)
1 cooked spaghetti squash, inside of squash can be shredded with a fork after cooking
(To bake squash: poke squash with fork, put in baking pan, 375 degrees for one hour)
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
4oz grated Parmesan cheese
4 tbsp olive oil
pinch of freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp fresh chopped chives (optional)
In a bowl, thoroughly combine the squash with the flour, cheese, black pepper and chives.
Heat the olive oil in a frying pan (skillet) over a medium heat.
Spoon 2 tbsp of the squash mixture into the pan and flatten.
Cook until golden underneath, then turn with a spatula and cook on the other side.
Continue cooking the individual patties separately, then cool to a safe handling temperature and serve.
(Use a dip that the child enjoys to make it even more appealing!)
We would love to hear some of your success stories and tips!