Why won’t my child try new foods? – 4 simple strategies for helping your child with eating issues
Eating issues are common in children with ASD and research shows that approximately 70% of children with ASD engage in atypical eating behaviours (Mayes and Zickgraf, 2019). A number of factors can make eating increasingly difficult. Communication deficits can make it difficult for children to express their wants and needs when it comes to food, motor skills deficits can make it difficult for them to eat foods that are preferred, and sensory sensitivities can impact the types of foods children enjoy.
What are some common eating issues?
- Refusing to eat
- Eating a limited number of foods
- Only eating foods with particular textures or colours
- Only eating foods when presented in a particular way
- Gagging or vomiting when presented with new foods
4 key tips you can try at home:
- Be consistent with meal-times and expectations
Having meal-times be as consistent as possible can help to set clear expectations. Always have meal-times at the table and eat at the same time each day. This will allow for predictability within the daily routine, and your child can anticipate what is coming next so that meal-times don’t come as a surprise. Sit at the table and eat your meal alongside your child, this shows them a great model of what is expected.
- Have new foods available and build comfortability
It is great to have additional foods available at the table to give your child the opportunity to try new things. Simply have a small side plate with a tiny serve next to their main plate but do not place any demands to eat the new food. Demands can turn into a battle which ultimately discourages your child from eating a food they may have eaten otherwise. Ensure the food is available but there is no pressure for your child to eat it. Build comfortability by repeatedly presenting the same food over multiple meal-times. This will help to desensitise your child to the unfamiliarity of the food.
- Be thoughtful about introducing new foods
Look for common themes or similarities in the food your child typically eats. Many children have a texture preference of crunchy or smooth, or a flavour preference of sweet or salty. When choosing a new food to present to your child, choose something that is similar to what they already eat can often be key to them being more willing to try it. Think about the food your child currently eats, how does it look, feel, smell and taste? Choose a new food that has as many similarities as possible. If your child enjoys eating chicken nuggets, try something like fish fingers. It can be helpful to change a single element of a preferred food to build flexibility in your child’s eating. For example, if your child always eats raspberry jam sandwiches, try introducing strawberry jam sandwiches next.
- Use positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement involves presenting your child with a reinforcing toy, activity or food immediately following the behaviour you want to increase. If your child touches or tries a new food, you can use positive reinforcement to increase the likelihood they will do this again. What is reinforcing depends on the individual child, but it is typically something the child enjoys and wants more of. Positive reinforcement for touching or trying a new food could look like giving them a piece of chocolate, blowing bubbles or a cuddle from a family member, given immediately following what you asked of them.
DISCLAIMER: Medical conditions can impact a child’s eating habits and may present as eating issues. It is important to consult a medical professional to address any medical conditions that may affect a child’s eating, to rule out any medical diagnoses (e.g., feeding and swallowing) before trying some of the strategies listed above.