Do you have a picky eater on your hands? Research shows that repeated exposure, combined with small rewards, increases a child’s willingness to accept disliked food. On average, children need over a dozen interactions with food before consumption. For children with an autism diagnosis, this number is typically amplified. Many children with autism may have postural issues that interfere with eating, are struggling to develop chewing skills, or have an insistence on “sameness” which can lead to extreme anxiety when presented with new foods. A behavioural therapist can help address these challenges, but there are plenty of strategies that you can implement in your own kitchen to introduce new foods into your child’s diet.

Offer nutritional variety

Leverage every meal and snack opportunity to add nutritional value. When creating a plate of food for your child, add a protein, vegetable or fruit, a starch, and include a small amount of their favourite snack. The familiarity of their favourite snack will provide comfort and having a variety of options in front of them will make them feel more in control of what they consume.

Encourage participation in the kitchen

Cooking and baking is a low-pressure sensory experience that prime your child’s system to explore new foods. They’ll experience a variety of sensory exposures to textures and smells through mixing ingredients, familiarizing themselves with the food. When cooking, make sure to talk about the feel, colour, and smell of the ingredients. An added benefit? Cooking also builds confidence and independence, and can improve communication and social skills.

Use a visual schedule

A visual schedule is a communication tool that provides information about daily events, locations and times. These schedules are especially valuable to children with autism, as they tend to do best with clear routines. Use this list to indicate the day’s meals and snack times, and make it easily accessible by putting it in the rooms where your child spends most of their time. The objective is to give your child as much time as possible to help manage their food-related anxiety prior to meals.

Make your meals a family experience

Between work schedules, extra-curricular activities, homework and everyday errands, carving out time for a family dinner can go by the wayside. Try to plan a family dinner at least twice a week, where your family gathers at the table for a meal for 15 minutes minimum. While your child with autism may not eat anything, they’ll be exposed to the smell, sight and sounds of food being eaten by your other family members, which will be a positive step towards them tasting the food.

Serve yourself

Instead of making a plate of food for your child, put food on serving plates and have your family serve themselves. The idea is to give them as much control as possible over what they eat. If they’re physically able, ask your child to pass the serving platters from one family member to another. This will expose them to the sensory aspects of the food on the table.

Gamify food

If the subject food has become a source of contention at home, there will be more fear attached to it. Whether it be a memory card game with food items, playing ‘restaurant’ with plastic vegetables, or singing songs about apples, try to incorporate the topic of food into play time. Consider taking your child with you on a short visit to the grocery store, and encourage them to pick out their favourite items. The more positive experiences your child has with food, the more likely they’ll feel comfortable around it.