April is National Autism Awareness Month. This month hits home for me because my son Sam has autism. He is a ‘picky eater’ and one of the reasons I became a dietitian. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction, communication and patterns of behavior. The spectrum part means symptoms are greatly varied for each person affected. According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 1 in 68 children are affected, and ASD is more common in boys than girls and occurs in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. People with ASD often have narrow, obsessive-like focus and repeat behaviors which can affect food choices and dietary habits. This can lead to health concerns like constipation, food-drug interactions and not eating enough. It also leads to limited food selection or strong food dislikes, which is just a fancy way of saying picky eating. Although the reasons may be different, picky eating is not unique to people on the spectrum. Lots of kids start off as picky eaters and many grow out of it. For those parents who have kids on the spectrum, those waiting for their child’s food preferences to mature and even picky adults, here are some tips from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics on how to kick mealtime battles and develop a positive relationship with nutritious foods.
Engage and recruit the cook
Watch cooking shows, look at cookbooks and research the ingredients on the internet to learn about where it comes from and how it grows. Then head to the supermarket and let picky eaters touch, and choose. Prepare and cook the food together. Now here’s the tricky part – do not worry or get upset if your child doesn’t like or eat it. The point is to keep it fun, low-pressure and positive for future flexibility.
Food is art
A pancake is the perfect canvas for a smiley face or sun face. Use halved strawberries for sun rays and blueberries or chocolate chips for the eyes and mouth. Layer yogurt between different colored fruits for a colorful parfait. Get creative and search images of ‘fun food for kids” on the internet for tons of artful food inspirations.
This is an oldie but a goodie to many of us who give up way too soon. Put the food on the plate and encourage your children to eat it, but don’t force them. I put one piece of broccoli on my son’s plate for more than a year; first he complained, then he ignored, then he played, then lo and behold he ate it.He is not an avid broccoli eater but he will take a bite or two and he tries more foods. The key to this success is no pressure.
No TV, phones, tablets or other electronics at the dinner table – for kids or adults. Keep it all on dinner time, which should be eating and family-focused. Also, don’t have heavy discussions or brow-beating. The dinner table should be an enjoyable and stress-free zone.
Lead by example
One of the reasons my Sam ate the broccoli is because we all were eating the broccoli. I can’t count how many times we said, “Hmmm … yummy” during dinner, and besides, aren’t we all trying to eat better and be healthy?
Remember, this is a process that won’t change overnight. If for any reason you feel your child’s well-being is being compromised, consult a doctor and/or registered dietitian. In the end, be confident knowing you are promoting a lifetime of healthy habits.