“My son is extremely picky. He only eats crackers and salad.”
Replace “salad” with “french fries” and that’s more like it. Vegetable are notoriously shunned by picky eaters with autism. Some say it’s due to a change in taste buds that protected our toddler ancestors from eating poisonous foods when they weren’t under a mother’s watch. In autism, we could look to texture, smell, and even color as deterrents to eating. While little ones’ dislike of veggies may seem arbitrary, the fact is, it seems practically universal in the US, and even more common among autistic children.
Parents want to know how to help their child with autism eat more veggies and the question that will eventually follow is “what vegetables should I feed by picky eater?”
How to pick vegetables to introduce to your picky eater
I suggest thinking about your family’s favorite veggies and starting there. There’s no point in trying to make your child eat broccoli if broccoli doesn’t show up regularly on your kitchen table.
Also consider your child’s sensory (texture) and flavor preferences as strong sensory food aversions are common in children with autism.
Then, work towards increasing your child’s exposure to new vegetables one at a time.
Still not sure where to start?
Use this list of kid-friendly vegetables and picky-eater-approved ways to prepare them as a guide:
Try starting with carrots for a child who loves packaged foods and uniform texture. Carrots - both raw and cooked - don’t change too much as you chew them, which is a plus for a lot of little ones. Serve raw with dips or plain as a snack. Puree and add to hummus or make a soup. Roasting brings out carrots’ sweetness and makes them more palatable for little kids (including little me - I would eat them only cooked!).
Summer squash (zucchini)
Summer squash is soft and mild. It’s a great vegetable for littles who are learning knife skills. Zucchini is super adaptable, so if your kid is picky about eating vegetables on their own, try shredding it to add to baked goods or making fritters. A child with sensory stressors might enjoy eating zoodles.
Sugar snap peas
Sugar snap peas are a perfect pick for kids who love crunchy, crisp foods. These are actually one of my favorite veggies to grow in a small garden and the growing experience can increase your child’s desire to try a new food. You can serve these as a fun snack raw or steam or sauté them for kids who prefer a softer texture. They taste great with a bit of soy sauce.
Cucumbers are so versatile - offer whole, cut into coins, spears, or even make a quick pickle (kids can totally help stuff the jars and measure spices). The high water content and mild flavor makes these an easy choice for a lot of kids. Peel or buy seedless if your child doesn’t like the varying textures.
Peppers are another veggie your child can help cut safely. I’d try a taste test - which do they like better, yellow, red, or orange? Which is sweetest? (Kids tend to prefer these varieties over green, which aren’t as sweet). Serve peppers cut in your child’s favorite shape or roast them, which totally changes their flavor while keeping the sweetness that kids love.
Winter squash and sweet potatoes
Like bell peppers, sweet potatoes and squash get even sweeter when they’re roasted. Make fries with either (a great step in a food chaining activity for a fry-loving kiddo) or puree into soup. Squash is also awesome when pureed and incorporated into a cheesy sauce (great for mac-n-cheese lovers - just share that you’re adding it first). Kids can help mash a cooked potato or squash and even peel them.
Okay. Peas are by far my favorite frozen veggie, and honestly, I like them best eaten frozen! I’m not the only one. Kids who prefer high sensory feedback respond really well to that surprising texture and temperature. Plus, when they’re cold, they don’t pop when you bite. That combined with the skin is a no-go for some kiddos. But overall, kids tend to love how starchy they are. Peas are super easy to serve on their own with favorite spices, added to soups or pastas, and pureed or mashed into a pesto or guacamole-like dip. If you ever find fresh peas in their shell I say grab them. Shelling is a great way to practice fine motor skills while exposing your little to new foods in the kitchen.
Corn is another starchy favorite, plus yellow for some reason is a lot less intimidating than green when we’re talking veggies. You can introduce kids to the corn flavor with cornbread or what my mom called “cornmeal mush” (served with maple syrup for breakfast, yum!). Once the flavor is accepted, offer corn on or off the cob. Make popcorn together. It’s a surprisingly versatile veggie!
Jicama is a perfect picky eater veggie due to it’s crunchy texture and mild flavor. Serve jicama raw and it’s pretty versatile. Use it a dipper for just about anything or use it as a “paint brush” in food play activities to enhance vegetable exposure. Jicama can also be chopped and added to fruit salads. The taste and color are so mild that your child might not even notice it’s in there
I know. This is a surprising inclusion on the list! Yes, cauliflower has a distinctive taste, but so many autistic kids love beige and white foods. Cauliflower fits right it. Steamed and mixed with spices, butter, and/or olive oil, cauliflower is actually pretty neutral. It purees well with smoothies, sauces, and dips. Cauliflower also gets super sweet and tasty when roasted. That’s something to work up to. If cauliflower is a new food, have your child break it into florets to increase familiarity and comfort.
While there are a lot of veggies on this list, start introducing just one new food at a time. Don’t give up if your picky eater initially rejects a new veggie. These things take time. Start by including them in cooking activities or engage in food play. Offer more recognizable veggies at first. Find some recipes together. Offer the food prepared a bunch of different ways - raw, with dips, and cooked with different flavors.
Experiment with which vegetables you serve and how you serve them. Pick one new vegetable to try this week. How can you play with it? Can your little help with cooking? What recipe will you make?