Picky eating is definitely not an issue exclusive to autism. Many children and even some adults struggle with a lack of diversity in their diet. There are many factors that can contribute to picky eating, such as addictions to certain foods, sensory issues, low tone, or resistance to changes in routine. But expanding the diet is possible with the right attitude and a few simple strategies. This discussion will give you some insight into picky eating and some ideas to get better nutrition into your children without adding stress to your home.
In my opinion, addictions to certain foods prevent many children from developing an interest in others. As I explained in my post on Diets that Heal, gluten is a protein that comes from wheat and several other grains. Casein is a protein that comes from dairy products. These proteins can actually be found in everything from chicken nuggets to salad dressing. Gluten and casein are difficult to digest, and are therefore common food sensitivities. When they are improperly digested, peptides remain called gliadorphin (or gluteomorphin) and casomorphin, which react with opiate receptors in the brain, mimicking the effects of heroin and morphine. These substances not only affect speech, cognitive and auditory processing, and pain sensitivity, they also become very addictive, much like heroin and morphine.
Additionally, MSG in processed foods and foods naturally high in glutamates excite our neurons and this makes us feel good and want more. So it is easy to become addicted to foods that contain these substances. I talked more about this in a post entitled Excitotoxicity: When Nourishing Foods Do Harm. There are also other allergies and intolerances that manifest as addictions.
If you remove gluten, casein, MSG and other addictive substances from your child’s diet, their interest in other foods may change dramatically. After a period of withdrawal, you may start to see changes, and these changes may go well beyond a willingness to try new foods. Now you can really start introducing nutrient-dense foods in appealing ways!
One thing I really encourage parents to do is to cook in batches and freeze in small portions. It may take your child ten times or more to gain interest in a new food. Since you will be trialing this food at least ten times, you might want to cook at least enough for several or all portions. Since it is best if everyone at the table eats this new food together, keep that in mind when cooking in batches.
I love these Mumi & Bubi Trays because they are BPA and PVC free, dishwasher safe, and contain lids so that the food does not absorb odors from other foods in the freezer. We use these to freeze small portions of pureed liver to add to hamburgers, bone broth to add to soups, applesauce for baked goods, tomato paste for sauces, veggies to add to smoothies, heavy cream to add to Dad’s coffee, and more. After they are frozen we pop out the cubes and store them in freezer bags or containers in the freezer. Being organized saves so much time!
Here are some ideas for making the transition to a healthier diet:
1. Removing addictive foods is an excellent first step. Just by eliminating addictive foods you are moving in the right direction. You may have to temporarily replace these favorite foods with processed foods that are substitutes for the foods they are addicted to, even if that is not the diet you are shooting for. Once food addictions are broken the process of dietary change can really accelerate.
2. Replacing the old foods one food at a time is a good strategy. They might object to any changes for a while and you want to have plenty of other foods they will enjoy on the plate so you don’t feel defeated or have to prepare something different.
3. If your child can express why he or she likes or dislikes particular foods, take advantage of this and try to figure out their own personal “food rules”. Do salty foods have to be crunchy? Do sweet foods have to be warm? If your child is nonverbal, you can figure this out yourself by keeping a food log.
4. Small amounts of new foods are less intimidating for your child and may make you more relaxed and like there is less at stake than an entire wasted plate. You can start with less than a teaspoon.
5. Introduce new foods at a time of day you know they will be hungry.
6. When you introduce foods, let them know what to expect. Is the food sweet? Salty? Spicy? Warm? Cold?
7. Let your child know that it is ok to just lick it or spit it out. This is a low-risk situation.
8. Try to accommodate texture preferences when introducing new foods. If your child loves fruit smoothies, try adding a piece of cooked butternut squash to it. If they like mushy foods, you can serve it mashed. If they like crunchy foods, you can make fries or chips out of it.
9. Try to involve your child in the shopping and food selection. It is also wonderful to include them in food preparation where appropriate. A buffet is an option many children enjoy. The idea is to offer them choices.
10. Some foods are easier to introduce at the beginning than others. Broccoli has a strong flavor. This may not be the best choice to start with for some kids, while others may love foods with strong flavors. You know your child best and what flavors appeal to them.
11. Use healthy fats, spices, dipping sauces and dressings to make foods more enticing and nutritious.
12. Make food attractive and fun. Skewers, smiley faces and animal shapes can go a long way to help a child get the food into their mouth the first time so that they can acquire a taste for it.
13. Don’t push or force your child to eat the new food. Just eat it yourself and express your own enjoyment of it and always reward any interest in it, no matter how small. Touching it, licking it, tasting it and spitting it out or even allowing it on their plate can be a step in the right direction and can be rewarded as a good effort.
14. You may want to let your child play with the new food in order to gain familiarity with it. I know we were taught not to play with our food, but whose rule is that, anyway?
Above all, Prepare yourself for the possibility that it may take 10 or more attempts to get the results you are looking for. Don’t expect success on the first try or you are setting yourself up for failure. It is a process. Relax and let it happen. Before you know it, your picky eater will be a dinner table superstar!