How can you help your picky eater with autism try new foods?
One of my favorite techniques to inspire your selective eater want to eat new foods is bringing them into the kitchen and encouraging them to get down and dirty with food.
I know as an autism parent your internal alarm is probably going off after reading that. The idea of a child with autism engaging with food in that way might seem impossible. It’s true. Sensory issues common to many children on the autism spectrum can lead to barriers with cooking, but that doesn’t mean the kitchen isn’t a place for your autistic child.
How cooking can help with autism
Research shows that repeated exposure to food increases a child’s willingness to eat. On average, children might need over a dozen exposures to a food before ever putting it in their mouth, but this number can be amplified in a child with sensory aversions and developmental delays, like autism. Cooking provides low-pressure fun sensory experiences that prime your child’s system to eventually eat new foods.
Beyond giving your a child the sensory exposures and experiences they need to feel comfortable eating new foods, cooking builds confidence and independence and it can improve communication and social skills. Cooking is a vital life skill that will forever benefit your child’s health and wellbeing.
While it might seem like a lot of work to include your child into the kitchen, even the most basic cooking skills will pay off. Your child will be more open to new foods and - this is so many moms favorite part - can even gain the skills to help you cook dinner!
Tips for successful cooking activities with a picky eater on the spectrum
I could write a whole book on tips for starting to cook with your autistic child. We’ll leave that for another day (yes, I promise those tips are coming your way soon!) and start today with just the most important basics for creating a successful cooking experience.
Don’t start teaching your child to cook when you’re trying to get dinner on the table. I know inviting your child to join in dinner prep seems like a natural step, but more likely that not, when you’re just getting started, experimenting before dinner is a recipe for disaster. Kids are more likely to be a little cranky before dinner; their appetites are revving up (hello, hanger!) while energy begins to fade. Plus, have you ever seen a mom who is relaxed with time to spare when she’s trying to get dinner on the table? It’s a rare occurrence! Instead of trying to cook with your kids before dinner, find a time when everyone is happy and calm, like after a meal or over the weekend, to learn new kitchen skills.
Prepare for sensory challenges. You know your child’s triggers. Cooking can create a lot of noise, mess, and smells. Think about adjustments you can make to visual, auditory, or tactile experiences to make the kitchen a more comfortable and inviting place for your child with autism.
Meet your child where they are at. Pick activities that are appropriate for your child’s developmental age and skill level. We’ve all taken on cooking projects that are above our skill level - it doesn’t feel good and they usually don’t end well. You want your child’s first experiences in the kitchen to be positive ones, so set him/her up for success by starting simply and selecting activities they can complete and enjoy. See the suggestions below for easy cooking ideas for your autistic child.
Okay, so you’re read to go and get your child with autism into the kitchen and cooking!
Try these 5 fun cooking activities that your autistic child can do today
Arranging food is a wonderful, fun, easy, and mess-free food activity for autistic kids who love order and aren’t ready for tactile experiences with food. Arranging food is an easy way to get acquainted with the kitchen and is a stepping stone to more involved cooking activities. Food arranging activities can include:
Placing cookies on a tray for baking
Collecting and organizing ingredients
Lining muffin tins
Setting the table
Spreading veggies on a sheet pan for roasting
Tear herbs and lettuces
Playing herbs and lettuces is a wonderful introductory cooking experience for kids for a ton of reasons. First, wouldn’t you be thrilled if your kid decides to sneak a taste of greens while they’re cooking? More practically, herbs and greens are a safe sensory choice. The texture is pretty homogenous, they’re not too slimy or overly stimulating, and most greens (but not herbs) don’t have a strong fragrance. Tearing also requires very little skill and precision. It is a great way to build fine motor skills. If your little is hesitant to touch, (s)he might want to wear thin gloves as a barrier. Some tearing ideas include:
Removing herb leaves, like cilantro, parsley, mint, and basil from stems (use the herbs to make pesto together)
Tear lettuce (romaine, green/red leaf) leaves for salad or hardier leaves like kale or cabbage for cooking or baking (kids love kale chips!)
Mixing is a safe and fun activity for children with food phobias or tactile issues. A few suggestions to help your child with autism mix with success:
Offer a long spoon to create a greater distance between your little and the food if your child has food phobias or tactile issues
Consider using non-metal mixing bowls and spoons to decrease noises if your child is sensitive to sound
Some fun and mixing ideas for kids include:
Baked goods including pancakes or pancake mixes; Birch Benders is my favorite pancake mix that requires the addition of only water - it was basically made for kids to help with!
Dressings and sauces (you can also try shaking these in a jar)
Guacamole (more of a mash, but still an awesome activity and a super tasty nutritious snack)
Measuring is a great introductory kitchen skill because once it is mastered, it opens up the door for more complex kitchen projects. Measuring ingredients for baking, especially in flexible recipes like pancakes and quick breads, is a wonderful way to introduce kids to the kitchen. You can even practice measuring without using a recipe - it’s a great activity to spark discussions and practice math, language, and motor skills. Invite your little to measure:
Dry ingredients for baking
Cut favorite foods
Let’s face it - cooking is a lot more fun when it’s with foods we like! Cooking with foods that your child likes will increase their interest. Creating a recipe that combines foods your child likes with new foods may also enhance their interest in trying the new foods. In addition to incorporating your child’s favorite foods, these soft fruits and veggies are easy-to-cut so safe starter foods:
Cooked soft vegetables (potatoes, carrots, squash)
To recap, cooking is a wonderful activity for autistic kids. Cooking can enhance a kid’s appetite for trying new foods and is an important life skill that can improve confidence, independence, and math, communication, and social skills. When you manage sensory triggers and start with fun cooking activities that align with your child’s interest and skill level, cooking will be a success.
Take your child grocery shopping so they can pick out some food they are interested in helping to prepare. Then it’s time to get cooking!