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Autism and Dietary Management

When it comes to food it can be very confusing to make the right decisions given all the choices; the information about what is “healthy” can be puzzling, your child’s temperament can be challenging and your own feelings around food can also impact how and what you feed your child.

Some children with Autism often have difficulties with regards to healthy eating, dietary habits, and feeding. If you are a parent or carer of an individual with Autism and difficulties with restricted diets, here are Melissa Roessler’s 5 fabulous tips to help build your child’s “good health” through healthy eating habits.

Written by:
Melissa Roessler MS, RD, Independent Nutrition Consultant.

1. Be a Role Model

  • Kids will follow the lead of the adults they see every day.
  • Eat a variety of foods.
  • Keep a positive approach when it comes to food.
  • Parents who are constantly dieting or complaining about their bodies may foster these same negative feelings in children.
  • Be a good model by limiting portions, not overeating and talking about feeling of fullness, especially with younger kids.

2. Avoid Battles Over Food

  • Give kids some control but also limit the kinds of foods available at home.
  • Predictable meal and snack schedules – kids like knowing what to expect.
  • Do not pressure or force kids to clean their plates – This teaches kids to override their feeling of fullness.
  • Do not bribe with food – Avoid using dessert as the prize for eating the meal.
  • Avoid being a short order cook or putting substitutes on the table. Family members who are not happy about the meal will get lucky another time.

3. Understand the Child’s Perspective

  • Small portions – size of the child’s stomach is the size of their fist. Make every bite count.
  • Small children do not like foods mixed together or mashed.
  • Be sympathetic to a child’s reaction to food vs. adult reaction.
  • Pair familiar foods with unfamiliar foods.
  • Be patient – taste buds change as a child grows. It may take 20 times of seeing a food before a child may decide to taste it, let alone like it. Reintroduce disliked foods.
  • Small kids rely on food around the home, so stock up on healthy choices in accessible areas.

4. Importance of Family Meals

  • Family meals have more to do with positive outcome in children than family income, one or two parent home, after school activity or religious affiliation.
  • Studies show families that eat together have kids more likely to eat fruit, vegetables and grains and excel academically and less likely to snack on unhealthy foods, smoke and use drugs and alcohol.
  • Comforting ritual for both parent and child.
  • Good time to introduce new foods in a safe and comfortable environment and find out like and dislikes.
  • Give child control by letting child serve them self and eat their way (fast or slow, 1 or 2 foods).
  • Going to the table hungry and eating until satisfied is the key to eating the amount of food needed to maintain appropriate body weight.
  • Be good company.
  • Pay attention when child does something right.
  • Good time to catch up with your kids.
  • Involve kids in the process of meal planning.

5. Colours of the Rainbow on Your Plate

  • Make an effort to include as much color on your plate.
  • Offer a variety of color (fruit and vegetables) and let the child chose.
  • Have crudites (raw vegetables or steamed) at the table as you are preparing the rest of the meal. Children our often hungriest when they come to the table.
  • Every day is a building block to set the foundation of good health. Some days are going to be better than others, but it is your commitment to good health and healthy food choices that will lead your children to optimal health and wellness.

The following are also other nutrition resources that we picked out to help you with dietary management for your child with Autism:

Dietary Management for Children and Adolescents with ASDs: Restricted diets

Instead of… (Replacing unhealthy food with healthy options)

How to Feed an Autistic Child Healthy Food

Healthy (and Tasty) Snack Ideas

Exploring Feeding Behaviour in Autism: A Parent’s Guide