10 Effective Strategies to Expand Food Tolerance in Children with Autism in Mississauga

Kids can be fussy when it comes to food. This can be a major source of stress for caregivers who just want children to eat properly. While it’s always preferable to have them eating healthy meals every day, parents often give up, and the child ends up subsisting on one or two favourites (as well as some junk food), and that’s it. This issue is amplified in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Children with autism in Mississauga will often exhibit food aversions and highly selective eating habits, which can pose challenges. These preferences can be attributed to a stubborn reluctance to try new foods, but also sensory sensitivities and rigidity in routines. For this reason, working on expanding food tolerance in neurodivergent children is essential for ensuring a balanced diet and overall health. 

Here are ten highly effective strategies to help broaden their palate and encourage healthier eating habits.

Introduce Sensory Integration Techniques
In the same way you’d slowly allow a child to adjust to a noisy or brightly-lit environment, by being cognizant of sight and sound—you can build up a gradual introduction to their sense of taste. There are ways to incorporate sensory integration techniques to desensitize your child to different textures and flavours. For instance, you can encourage sensory play activities involving food. It may seem counter-intuitive, but finger-painting with yogurt can work or simply exploring different fruits and vegetables with their hands and other senses before eating. 

Create a Positive Mealtime Environment

You can make breakfast into a special occasion and dinners into a wholesome ritual that your child enjoys. The first step is to create a pleasant environment free from distractions. When mealtimes are encouraging and treated as a relaxed experience they are met with positive outcomes. This is the place where it’s important to limit screen time and encourage family members to model healthy eating behaviours.

Start With Gradual Exposure
Try not to bombard your child with a bunch of foreign food ideas all at once. Take a gentle approach. Start off by bringing in new foods gradually by making them a part of familiar meals or snacks. Work with small portions to begin and then gradually increase the quantity as your child becomes more comfortable with the taste and texture.

Try Food Chaining
Introduce new foods that are similar in texture, taste, or appearance to foods your child already enjoys. This is called food chaining. For example, if your child likes applesauce, try introducing mashed bananas or pureed pears.

Make Use Of Visual Supports
A little walkthrough before mealtime can be a valuable integration experience. Use visual aids such as pictographs, cue cards, charts, or social stories to familiarize your child with new foods before introducing them. This can help to reduce anxiety and set clear expectations of how meals are supposed to go.

Offer A Variety Of Food Choices
It never hurts to give your child options. Provide them with a few choices during mealtime (in advance). This will give them a sense of empowerment in the situation and foster a sense of autonomy over their food preferences. For each category, offer two or three options (if you have the bandwidth to do so). This will allow them to select what they would like to eat from among the options that you have pre-screened for nutrition. 

Make It Playful
Bring your child grocery shopping or have them help you in the kitchen, and try to make it fun. You can integrate food exploration into their play activities as well with kitchen toys and role-play scenarios. Get them to interact with different foods through play to increase their familiarity and comfort levels.

Incorporate Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement goes a long way with neurodivergent children. Whether it’s a hug, a high five, or a dessert on the horizon, implement a reward system to reinforce positive eating behaviours. Other suggestions include offering praise, giving stickers, or screen time as small rewards for trying new foods or taking a certain number of bites. However, be careful not to create a dependence on rewards for eating.

Try Out Some Food Experiments
Start your own ‘sampler tasting’ menu, with bite-sized options to enjoy. With a little nibble here and there, you can turn mealtime into a fun experiment by encouraging your child to explore new foods through taste tests or cooking activities. Get your child to take part in meal preparation as you go and allow them to experiment with different ingredients to make it an enjoyable and engaging experience.

Turn To The Professionals

At Monarch House, we can bring experts onboard that we can consult with when it comes to food and mealtimes. It’s important to get advice from pediatricians, dietitians, and feeding therapists that specialize in working with children with autism. They can provide individualized strategies and support tailored to your child’s specific needs, addressing any underlying nutritional deficiencies and sensory issues.

It requires patience, consistency, and a multifaceted approach to expand food tolerance in children with autism in Mississauga. By implementing these ten strategies, caregivers can help a child develop a more nutritious and varied diet (while reducing mealtime stress and anxiety). With time and support, children with autism can overcome food aversions and enjoy a wider range of foods, ultimately promoting their overall health and well-being.