Four Tips for Fussy Eaters

Do You Need Help with a Fussy Eater?

Good nutrition is vital for optimal learning and mental health, and healthy eating helps us to form meaningful connections through the enjoyment of a shared meal. However, feeding problems are relatively common in children with Autism. It can be challenging for some children on the spectrum to have a good, varied diet with adequate nutrition.

We spoke to Irabina’s dietitian, Louisa Li for some tips to help our fussy eaters to try more foods and make mealtimes more enjoyable for everyone in the family.

Tip One: Make mealtimes pleasant and fun

  • Try not to worry about spilled food or drink on the floor, your child is more willing to try food in a happy, low-stress and regular mealtimes.
  • Don’t force your child to try a new food but re-offer it at other opportunities.
  • Turn the TV off during mealtime so all family members can talk to each other instead.
  • Set a time limit at mealtime. For children aged 1-6 years old, try to limit it to no more than 20 minutes for meal. If your child has not eaten their food during this time, mealtime can be finished and don’t offer them more food until the next planned meal or snack time.
  • Some children may be too distracted to sit at the table for a meal. Try to offer quiet time before meals so your child can calm down before eating. The ritual of hand-washing before mealtime may also help.
  • Make healthy food and mealtimes fun! For example, use cookie cutters to cut sandwiches or fruits into interesting shapes.

Tip Two: Encourage a variety of nutritious foods

  • Offer a variety of healthy options from the five major food groups every day, including grain/cereal, fruit, vegetable, dairy and meat/alternatives. For example, if your child does not like cheese, he/she may enjoy yoghurt or custard instead.
  • Go for variety yourself. Family mealtime is a great opportunity to show your child that you are willing to try new foods and that you enjoy them too.
  • Try using foods with textures that your child likes. For example, if your child prefers crunchy foods, offer raw vegetables like carrot, instead of cooked.

Tip Three: Give fussy eaters independence with food

  • Offer 2-3 choices within a range of healthy foods, and let your child choose what to eat and decide how much for themselves. It can give your child a sense of control, and may be helpful for children who find change difficult. If you give too many options to your child, they may get too confused or overwhelmed, so for example, instead of asking your child to pick what they want, you could ask ‘Would you like banana or carrot sticks?’.
  • Get your children engaged in preparing family meals, such as, picking a recipe, going grocery shopping with you and performing age-appropriate tasks in the kitchen (like getting food out of the fridge; picking herbs, fruit or vegetables from the garden; washing/cutting fruit and vegetables; pressing the button on the food processor; tossing a salad; or whisking eggs for an omelette; and so on). Your child will feel proud to be helping and be more likely to try food that they have helped to make.

Tip Four: Introduce new foods to fussy eaters

  • Keep offering new foods at different times and settings. Your child might take a while to get familiar and comfortable with a new food, so don’t be disheartened.
  • Pair new foods with familiar foods. Try offering a new food, or a food your child has refused, with familiar food your child already likes, for example, a piece of cauliflower (new food) alongside some mashed potato (familiar food).
  • You can also let your child touch, sniff or lick a new food to get used to the look, feel and smell of it. You might need to let them do this over several meals before they are willing to take a bite. For some children, sniffing and licking a food may be too much for them, you could start just by getting your child used to having the food on their plate.
  • Try not to let your child fill up on drinks or ‘sometimes’ food before introducing new foods. Your child is more likely to try food if they are hungry and don’t have the option of something else to eat.
  • Serve your child the same meal the family is eating but in a portion size that they will eat. Try not to make a separate meal for your child, as it teaches them that they will get a special meal if they carry on being fussy.
  • Don’t make a big deal about it. Punishing your child for refusing to try a new food may turn that new food into a negative thing. If your child refuses to eat it, say something like ‘Try it, it’s yummy’. If they still don’t want it, calmly take it away and say, ‘OK, we will try it another time when you are hungry’.
  • Show your child how much you or a sibling enjoy a particular food, and over time they might be willing to give it a try too. This method works particularly well for younger children who have an older sibling they look up to or copy naturally.
  • Praise your child when they try a new food. For example, ‘It’s great that you tried those carrots’. You could reward your child with a favourite activity, but be mindful that in the longer term you are aiming to get them eating a variety of food because they want to, not just because of a reward. A reward chart might help in the short term, and work well for children aged 3-8 years.

If you’re concerned about your child’s feeding difficulties and nutrition, please contact our Feeding Clinic here at Irabina. We offer a holistic and evidence-based approach to help children with feeding problems. Our multidisciplinary team includes Behaviour Therapists, a Dietitian, Speech Pathologist, Psychologist, Nurse, and a Specialist Services Liaison.

Irabina’s Feeding Clinic

At Irabina our team offers a variety of feeding services to assist you with your child’s feeding difficulties, including

  • 1-hour feeding appointments with a behaviour therapist on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis
  • 4 or 8 week intensive programs from Monday to Friday (9am-3.30pm, with four meal sessions each day)
  • Dietitian appointments for nutrition-related issues (e.g. underweight, overweight, nutrient deficiency and food allergy/intolerance)
  • Speech Pathologist appointment for oral motor skill support

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