Eating is tricky. Especially for kids with autism. Children with autism face many barriers to eating: sensory issues, rigid preferences, and fear of new foods (neophobia) are some of the most common ones I see.
That’s all to say eating issues in autism aren’t always about food itself. Often there’s another component (sensory issues? skill deficit?) that interferes with getting a child with autism to eat. Children with autism might refuse to eat based on how a food is served, how a food is cut, what is touching the food, where the food is his plate, how big the portion size is, what container the food came from, the food’s temperature, or even what is happening in the background while he is trying to eat.
Some of these factors are hard to control, but most are modifiable. In addition to creating a meal environment that is most comfortable for your child, I have one small recommendation that can make a really big impact on getting your child with autism to eat.
How to Get Your Child with Autism to Eat
Put your child in control.
I know that not too long ago I actually recommended that YOU be your child’s food boss. There’s is room for you to maintain your authority at meals while also letting your child make decisions when able and appropriate.
Research shows that kids who are involved in food decisions or food preparation eat better.
Have you ever thought about letting him serve himself? How did it go?
Serving meals family style - where every family member serves him or herself from a large serving dish - is an easy and effective way to get your child with autism to eat. Research supports family style meals as a factor that may contribute to a well balanced and varied diet.
Why You Should Serve Meals Family Style
Deciding how foods looks on their plate - how much, where it goes, in what order - can help skeptical eaters with autism eat better.
This little bit of control can empower kids and make them feel more comfortable about eating. Plus, they can arrange food in the way that feels best to them, eliminating many of those common autism barriers to eating that we discussed above.
Plus, serving food is an additional food exposure. Food exposures further enhance your child’s interest in eating.
Serving food family style instead of pre-plating meals is a simple shift that can make a huge difference in autism picky eating.
Just to clarify: the whole family doesn’t have to be around for you to serve meals family style, so don’t let that be a barrier. It can work if your child is eating alone, but I recommend that you eat “family meals” (at least 2 people) whenever possible.
For family style meals, all you need to do is to arrange the meal’s dishes with a serving utensil so everyone can take the amount that they want. Serving family style does meant that you’ll have a few extra dirty dishes and it does mean that you will have to make enough for everyone and let your kids know that they need to share (so no taking too big a portion before everyone gets some!).
As with anything, it will take some adjustment at first. Give it two weeks. Most kids and families find this is an effective way for serving meals and encouraging kids and picky eaters to eat.
Eating challenges in autism sometimes have little to do with food itself. Often, how the food appears on a child’s plate can make or break their decision to eat. Serving meals family style (or letting your child serve herself) is a helpful way to get a child with autism to eat.
Find one daily meal when you can create large serving plate and implement family style meals. This can be breakfast, lunch, or dinner - it doesn’t matter which. It is up to you whether your child must take at least a tiny portion from every component of the meal or whether it is okay if she serves only the foods she definitely wants to eat.