This chapter is courtesy of Crystal Dodson, Autism Mom and Holistic Health Coach. When she’s not loving her boys to pieces, she is using her autism nutrition education and first hand autism experience to support private clients and workshop participants. Her passion is to guide families from autism diagnosis to connection with their child and their purpose.
I know what you may be thinking. The gluten free casein free diet sounds great, but there is no way my child is going to eat that way! All he eats is pasta and cheese! I completely understand. My son used to be the pickiest eater. More often than not, dinner time felt like World War III.
It’s Worth It
I remember when I started an autism nutrition diet for my son James. He was only 2 ½. I decided to take out dairy first because I was still confused about what gluten was. I remember the first night I gave my son a little almond milk instead of regular cow milk before bed. He didn’t drink it. I felt like I was depriving him. I started questioning my decision already. The next night we tried the almond milk again, and once again he didn’t drink it. We sauntered off to bed, but this time when I leaned in to kiss him goodnight he didn’t turn away! This was the first time he let me kiss him square on the mouth! I remember cheering, clapping, and celebrating with tears flowing down my cheeks. I must have kissed him 50 times in a row. It was absolutely incredible! I decided right then and there that I would commit to doing whatever it takes to help my son. I felt empowered. I didn’t care that the pediatrician thought diets didn’t work. We just had to figure out how to help his little body heal so he would be able to express that love more easily.
First Things First
The most important thing with autism nutrition is to get clear on your intention for changing your child’s diet. When you know your “why” you can tolerate almost any “how.” My “why” was the fact that I wanted to connect with my son in a loving way. When I saw the spark of possibility in such a short amount of time, I decided that it didn’t matter how difficult it may be, it was worth it. The “how” would come with dedication and practice.
You Are Not Alone
If you feel like your child is extremely picky you are not alone. Up to 70% of parents with children on the spectrum report problems with excessively narrow eating habits. So how can you encourage your child to try new things?
Your attitude is everything! When you get frustrated, your child is likely to get frustrated. Then they will probably be less likely to try a new food. Believe me, I know this from experience! If you can shift your attitude from being upset to realizing that your child is doing the best he can it is helpful. There are several reasons a child may be limiting foods including food allergies or sensitivies; sensory difficulties; food and/or chemical addictions in processed foods; yeast, viral or microbial overgrowth; and control issues.
When I realized that James wasn’t just “being defiant” it was easier for me to be gracious with him. I started making meal time more of a game. If he didn’t eat what I made for him I told myself, “Great! Now there is more for me!” Don’t think of food as being wasted, but a valiant loving effort on your part to feed your child the best food possible.
Patience is a Virtue!
Don’t worry if you offer a new food and your child doesn’t try it. It can take ten tries or more before a child might accept a new food. There are some people who save the food that wasn’t eaten and serve it for the next meal. (I tried this too. Unsuccessfully I might add.) I have found that waiting a few days before offering the food again will help the child be more willing to try it.
Mealtimes Can Be Fun
Kids love to play. With autism nutrition, consider the possibility that mealtimes can be a fun time to play. I know your mother probably told you not to play with your food. She probably wasn’t trying to feed a child on the spectrum either!
Here are some things I have tried that my kids enjoy:
• Make faces on pizza with vegetables
• Cut fruit or veggies into fun shapes with mini cookie cutters
• Make a healthy dip they can dip their veggies in
• Use fun plates or utensils
• Read books with characters that eat healthy food
My kids are so competitive. They like to see who can finish first. The racing is not the best for digestion, but sometimes you just have to do whatever it takes to get the broccoli down!
Recognize Their Efforts
I never realized how many steps there are to eating until I tried to feed James. When we started out he wouldn’t even tolerate certain foods on his plate. He might scream or push it off. Then I tried to just get him to take a bite. I remember putting the spoon up to his mouth to try and get him to taste it and he would start dry heaving before it even touched his tongue. My goodness. Once I got some food in his mouth I figured he would have to eat it. He refused to chew and would hold food in his mouth for over an hour. Through all this I have learned that there are many steps a child goes through to successfully eat a food.
• Tolerating food on their plate
• Smelling it
• Touching it
• Putting food to their lips
• Touching it with their tongue
• Putting the food in their mouth
• Chewing the food
• Swallowing the food
Each step is one step closer to your child actually eating the food. Encourage your child when they make progress. “Wow, you touched it! So great!” Remember, patience is a virtue.
Study Your Child’s Favorite Foods
What foods could your child eat every day for the rest of his life? This is the key to getting your child to try new foods. Your job is to become a detective. What is it about the food that your child loves? Is there a certain texture, temperature, or flavor your child prefers? Are soft foods preferred over harder foods? Hot, cold, or room temperature? Spicy, bland, raw, or cooked? Once you discover what aspects it is about certain foods your child likes best, you can use that to your advantage when introducing new foods.
If your child likes crunchy textures you can make veggie chips. If they like soft textures you can make pureed veggies. Think mashed sweet potatoes. Veggies fries are also delicious too. My kids love dipping baked vegetable fries. They will gladly eat parsnip fries as long as they can dip it in ketchup. (Organic and gluten free ketchup without high fructose corn syrup, of course.)
I think we can all agree that the goal is to get our children to willingly eat a wide variety of nutritious fruits and vegetables every day. When your child has extremely limited eating habits it behooves you to get the food in whatever way is possible. This is where it pays to get a little sneaky.
Hiding veggies is one of my strong suites. There are many ways to do this. Shredded veggies can be added to breads or muffins. Pureed veggies can be added to muffins, meatballs, loafs, or patties, in pasta sauce or pancakes. (Use ¼-1/2 cup of puree per cup of pancake flour mix.)
If you child likes juice or smoothies you are in luck! You can get just about any fruit or veggie down the hatch with a fresh juice or smoothie. This was my saving grace with James. I was juicing every day. I had four different juice recipes using different fruits and vegetables. When I knew he was drinking his juice at breakfast, it gave me peace of mind when dinnertime came. I knew if he didn’t eat anything for dinner, at least I knew he had a few servings worth at breakfast.
Now that I am working and the boys are going to school, I am so thankful to have found Juice Plus. It is an incredible whole food supplement made from whole fruits and veggies that comes in a capsule or chewable. Since taking Juice Plus, the boys have both been eating more fruits and vegetables. Once the body gets a taste of all those valuable nutrients, there is some metabolic reprogramming happening that helps them desire more! The trick is getting the food in the body in a way that is tolerated.
Trust your instincts when it comes to feeding your child. There are lots of experts out there with tips and tricks that are helpful, but nobody knows your child better than you do. You have a relationship with your child that trumps anybody else. The trust and love you share will be advantageous to your shared success. Trust that you can do it and then just go for it. Remember, if they don’t eat it, there is more left for you!