Children with autism spectrum disorder often have particular food preferences.  Chicken nuggets, crackers, macaroni and cheese, and bread tend to be foods that these kids accept and love.  Gently expanding that list of foods can be excellent for nutrition and getting new sensory experiences.  Here are some ways to get started:

 

Present a new food..

 

But take away the pressure of eating it!  Eating a new type of food can be an overstimulating sensory experience.  New smells, colors, textures, and tastes can be too much all at once.  Place the novel food on the child’s plate without the expectation that they’ll eat it.  Tolerating the food on their plate is a significant first step for exposure to new foods.  If it is too much to have it on their plate, keep putting it on yours until they are more acclimated to it.

 

Play with your food!

 

“Don’t play with your food” is outdated, especially for kids with special needs.  Children with ASD benefit significantly from having a positive experience with food.  Make pictures by putting yogurt or hummus on a plate and letting them trace lines into it with their fingers.  They might even have a taste before they are finished.  Have some fun by making popsicles with fresh fruit or building a structure with grapes and toothpicks.

 

Use food bridges

 

Food bridges are an excellent strategy for kids of all ages and abilities.  Start with food that the child is comfortable with, say, salty crackers.  This will be the base food.  Now change one thing about that food.  In this case, it might be the shape, the brand, a whole wheat option, or a dip that they can add on themselves.  Keep changing only one thing at a time.  The progression might look like: Salty cracker à whole wheat cracker à whole wheat cracker with yogurt dip à whole wheat cracker with yogurt dip with ½ a teaspoon of peanut butter added, and so on.  If the child doesn’t accept the next step in the food bridge, go back to their last successful step and make a shorter bridge.

 

Model healthy choices

 

While it is easier to make one meal that everyone will eat, try not to get stuck in the routine of planning meals around those limited preferred foods.  If kids don’t see nutritious options regularly, they are more likely to avoid them altogether when encountering those options in the future.  For some kids, seeing something on another person’s plate without explanation or expectation actually piques their interest.

 

Keep it tiny!

 

When placing a new food on a child’s plate, make sure it is small in amount.  Don’t start with a raw carrot stick if you’re introducing carrots.  Instead, cook it (this texture might be easier for some kids to tolerate), and offer a quarter of a sliced baby carrot.  This is less intimidating for kids, and if they do try it, an outstanding small win for everyone!  They might even ask for more.

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