The Link Between Autism and Atypical Eating Patterns in Your Child or Adolescent Part 2

Strategies to Try and Manage “Picky Eating”

By: Amber Whittemore RD BSN MHSc

Welcome back to the HEC blog, where the current series is diving into the link between Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and atypical eating patterns in your children. Last week we introduced the topic and looked at the strategy of investigating gut health, as well as adapting food to your child’s sensory experiences. Today we will be covering more strategies to try to optimize your child’s nutrition intake if they are experiencing atypical patterns in their eating behaviours.

As a reminder, next week (part 3 of the blog) we will be diving into the warning signs of disordered eating in your child with ASD, as well as strategies to help support your child if disordered eating does occur.

So, let’s pick up where we left off last week:

#3 Experiment with New Strategies for Managing Mealtimes 

  1. Adapt to your child’s sensory experiences – see last week’s post
  1. Try to get your child to “eat the rainbow and the clouds”

Each shade of fruit and vegetable offers the body a different array of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants – making bolstering up the number of different coloured whole foods your child eats important!

One strategy to experiment with is selecting foods from each colour of the rainbow and clouds to try and make the selection process as creative and fun as possible (see tip 4)! Draw a rainbow with some fluffy clouds and try to think of different fruits and/or vegetables they would be willing to try within each stripes colour, making a list as you go.
A picture containing food, fruit, variety, arranged

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The following can be a good place to seek ideas for different coloured fruits and vegetables:

Red/PinkRed appleStrawberriesRaspberriesCherriesWatermelonRed pepperTomatoBeets, beet hummusRadish
OrangeOranges, mandarins PapayaMangoPeach, nectarineCarrotSquash (butternut, acorn, pumpkin)Yam, sweet potato
YellowBananaPineappleGolden kiwiYellow pepperYellow tomatoYellow zucchiniCornGolden beetsYellow beans
GreenGreen appleKiwiGreen PearGreen grapesHoneydewAvocadoGreen pepperBroccoliCelerySnap peas, snow peasGreen greensSpinachLettuceGreen olives
Blue/Purple/BlackBlueberriesBlackberriesPurple grapesPlumsDates, prunesRed leaf lettucePurple yamPurple carrotsPurple tomatoBlack olivePurple cabbageNoriEggplant
White (the clouds)Peeled applePeeled pear, Asian pearWhite peach, White nectarineLycheePeeled eggplantCauliflowerWhite cornMushroomsPotatoTurnipOnion (sweet, white)
  1. Try a new food at least 3 days in a row to increase acceptance

You may have heard it before, but consistency is key. It is reported that increased exposure to new foods increases acceptability, with a common estimation being that it takes on average a new food being tried 7 – 12 times to determine if it is liked1. At HEC we recommend parents introduce a new food at least 3 days in a row to normalize the food, and ideally not introduce a burden of new foods all at once. A good rule of thumb is a new food for at least 3 days, every 10 days.

The method of re-introducing a new food each day for at least 3 days can help with the goal of adding new acceptable foods to your child’s lunch kit since by day 3 it is much more likely they will accept the item than on day 1. It is not uncommon for the first attempt to go poorly and by round three the food to be better tolerated or even enjoyed.

  1. Play with new foods to create a fun environment

Make new foods fun! Ideas for making food fun could include:

  • Eating the rainbow and clouds (tip 2)
  • Using a fruit or veggie cutter to make new foods fun shapes
  • Painting with new sauces, such as marinara, on the plate before adding food items
  • Play tic-tac-toe with food items (i.e., make a grid with long vegetables like beans or asparagus on a plate, each time you place your fruit or veggie (cut small) on your spot you get to eat one as well) – each of you taking a turn to try and get three in a row
  •  Make food landscapes (i.e., try to stack veggie coins into a tall building, mashed potatoes into a mountain, broccoli into a forest)

A group of cherry tomatoes

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  1. Try to neutralize the environment during mealtimes

Depending on your child’s sensitivities, it may be beneficial to neutralize the eating environment as much as possible to fit their needs. For example, if your child is sensitive to background or loud noises, try quieting any potential noises that could distract your child, such as the TV, radio, phones or tablets. If your child is scent sensitive, be mindful of not putting on perfume or cologne before a meal or serving highly potent smelling items. Being aware of your child’s particular triggers will make it easier to manage the environment to make it neutral for them.

Avoid arguments, frustration, or punishments at the meal table. Allow the eating experience to be as peaceful as possible, even if it is not going as you hoped. The Child Mind Institute references Dr. Lee frequently, stating he “teaches parents to practice “planned ignoring,” a technique which involves purposefully ignoring a behaviour as long as it’s not unsafe.”1

  1. Praise your child for progress, however small

Be sure to praise your child for each step they take in the right direction, no matter how small! Dr. Lee outlines a general rule of thumb which recommends that for every 1 direction or reprimand given at the meal table, that it is followed with 5 statements of praise for your child’s effort or progress. Examples of praise could include:

  • General praise such as “great job”, “way to go”, or offering a high five
  • Thank you for sitting down with me to eat!
  • I appreciate you taking some of that new food, good job!
  • Good job with getting started on your meal so quickly, wow!
  • Great work smelling and touching a new food, that is progress!
  • Thank you for sitting so quietly and focussing on your food
  • You are doing so great experimenting with this new food
  • Great job listening to your body and eating until you were satisfied!
  • Great job asking for seconds when you were still hungry!
  1. Work with a Counsellor, Social Worker, or Registered Dietitian to overcome fears around certain foods

Last, but not least, work with a specialized counsellor, social worker, or registered dietitian to come up with new strategies to try out with your child – or to work on overcoming food fears or uncertainties.

While eating a robust number of foods is certainly beneficial for your child’s health, pushing items on them without fully understanding their hesitation or fears around food could compile the issue.

If you have any questions or concerns about your child’s eating patterns, reach out to HEC where we have a whole team of specialists who may be able to help get to the root of the concern, and/or work with your family on strategies to overcome concerns.

References 1Child Mind Institute. (2021). Autism and Picky Eating. Received from: