How to end mealtime meltdowns with your picky eater

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You probably have a morning routine to get the kids out the door and to school on time. I’m sure you also have a nighttime routine making sure baths are taken and teeth are brushed before it’s time to snuggle together with a book before bed.

Have you ever considered a routine for eating meals? Between accommodating everyone’s schedule, food preferences, and hunger needs, mealtimes tend to be hectic and unpredictable. But children love routine and structure, especially children with autism. They benefit from knowing when to expect a meal and what it will look like - where will it be, who will be there, how long will it last. Structure and predictability when eating help promote healthy eating, regular appetites, and appropriate mealtime behaviors. It even helps you! Having an expected routine is one less thing to think about on the fly.


The following tips for creating mealtime routines will help your child with autism improve eating habits and behaviors and end mealtime struggles for good.

Create consistency

Serve meals and snacks around the same time each day. Create a routine with when, where, how you serve meals, and even with what kinds of foods you serve. Stick to eating in one or two designated areas, such as the dining room or kitchen counter. Eating in areas that have other purposes and during other activities confuses for kids. Sorry, guys! Snacking on the couch in front with a favorite TV show on doesn’t fly. When you stick to set times and set locations kids will adjust their expectations, and when it involves food, they’ll also adjust their appetites!

Set expectations

Be clear with how meals work in your family. Let children know if you expect the whole family to sit at the table until everyone is finished eating. Are cell phones, books, or toys allowed? Is it okay to say yucky? Can someone get up in the middle of the meal to make a special dish in the kitchen? Encourage the behavior you want to see.

Say no to negativity

Encourage good behavior with immediate positive reinforcement. Use clear language to reinforce specific behaviors by saying things like “great job trying the chicken” and “thank you for sitting calmly with us while we finish eating.” Ignore behaviors you don’t want to see repeated. Try to avoid having an emotional investment in whether your child eats or how much she eats. Your feelings will be clear to everyone, and even if you’re being positive, the whole family will sense the pressure.


Set up for success

All of the activity - noises, smells, commotion - during meals can be too much for some children. Know your child’s triggers and work around them. Maybe you dim the lights, play soothing music, or allow your child to wear comforting headphones.

Eat together

Family meals are linked to so many benefits for children: academic success, positive self image, less likelihood of trying drugs or alcohol. Beyond that, children are more likely to try new foods when they see others enjoying them.

Aim to have a family meal once a day. And remember, that it doesn’t have to be dinner. Breakfast and even snacks get the job done! Make eating together feel like a special ritual by using placemats, lighting candles, playing soothing music, or playing a fun game at the table. Food (and hopefully passing down those positive eating behaviors!) is a big part of why you’re sitting down together, but simply enjoying time together is just as valuable.


Promote a balanced meal

Variety is the spice of life. And the hallmark of a balanced diet. The foundation of a nutritious diet for children and adults alike includes a mix of protein, dairy, fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. Aim to offer most of these food groups at meals and try to serve a variety of items from each of the groups throughout the day or week. Varied offerings introduces your child to a range of nutrients and flavors throughout the day, which ensures good nutrition and a diverse palate. Offer new foods several times in different presentations. Try serving meals family style so each family member is in control of what and how much they want to eat.

If you like this post you may also enjoy reading:

Fun and effective tips for eating out with autism

8 solutions for a child with autism and sensory food aversions

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