Do you have a schedule for meals and snacks? Or does your day feel like one never-ending cycle of doling out snacks, preparing meals, and cleaning it all up?
An eating routine may not seem to have much to do with what and how your child eats, but consistency and clear expectations during mealtimes can actually improve both your little one’s appetite and behavior at meals. Kids who eat all day likely aren’t hungry for meals and therefore tend to not eat or behave well when it’s time to sit down.
Incessant snacking has become the norm for many children. Non-stop eating can mess with hunger and satiety cues (the feelings that let us know when we’re hungry and full) and can also interfere with mealtimes. Children with autism are already prone to gorging and, due to sensory impairments, are more likely to have trouble identifying their hunger and fullness.
Creating a schedule for snacks and meals is one of the first recommendations I share with the autism families I work with. Parents are always surprised at what a big difference consistency makes in behavior and eating. Plus, a lot of kids on the autism spectrum love routine and knowing what to expect. The boundaries and consistency provide the support they need to thrive during meals, improve their diets, and ultimately meet their nutritional needs. You can imagine what a significant impact this can have on both home and social life!
Here are 5 tips to create an eating schedule for your family
Start by deciding what works best for your family.
Consider making small changes, one at a time. For example, you can begin by scheduling dinner and eating at the same time and in the same place nightly before adjusting snack times.
Share the plan with the whole family by reviewing expectations. Some expectations may include no eating or drinking (aside from water) between meals or that everyone must stay seated until the meal is over.
To limit resistance to the plan (let’s face it, you might get some), I suggest inviting your kids to participate in meal planning and decision making as appropriate. This helps them feel included and gives them some agency, which will increase their acceptance to the new routine. Some ideas to get your kids involved include: setting the table, clearing the table, folding napkins, setting the timer (see below), and selecting recipes. I have more suggestions for getting kids involved with food in my free downloadable guide! Melanie Potock’s book Adventures in Veggieland also has a ton of amazing ideas for introducing kids to food and cooking.
Consider investing in a visual cue like a timer to help your child visualize how long they need to sit at meal times. Limit snacks to 15 minutes and meals to around 30 minutes. I recommend the Mini Time Tracker and the Audible Time Timer .
Remember all changes can take time to get used to. Stick to it. Your routine should begin to feel normalish within two weeks. If something doesn’t feel right, reassess and adjust as you go to make a schedule and routine work for your family.