Of all the challenges that come with autism, the restricted diet of our son has been one of the hardest to tackle.
We’ve tried many different strategies over the years to encourage him to eat a wider variety of food but, so far, we haven’t been all that successful.
The trouble with new food
With Gilbert, his fear of trying food is due to a mixture of sensory sensitivity, anxiety and deliberate resistance. This combination has resulted in a pretty restricted diet over the years.
We know he prefers crunchy textures and is generally under-responsive to sensory input so giving him food with extra crunch helps overcome these barriers.
We know he struggles with generalised anxiety disorder, on top of his autism diagnosis, which means he can often feel anxiety in any facet of his life, for any reason. This has led him to view change and new experiences as threats, so he unconsciously stops himself from even considering trying something new, such as a new food.
There’s also an element of opposition too, unrelated to his sensory needs or anxiety. To be honest, he has set his mind against trying new food and it’s near impossible for him to soften this stance. He is especially against trying anything that’s remotely healthy, which has been a huge barrier to increasing his diet.
After years of trying to push him for a few weeks, only to give up and revert to preparing multiple meals again, we’ve taken a new approach this year.
A more proactive approach to meal planning
As a family, we now decide together on our menu for the coming week. Each Sunday night, at the dinner table, we talk about what we’d like to try and we map out a menu for the week ahead.
The week’s menu involves alternating between what the kids want to eat one night and then what we want to eat on the next.
Everyone has input and everyone has to agree. By agreeing to the menu, the kids know they are expected to try everything, not just the meals they prefer.
On alternate nights, the kids can have what THEY want to eat, but they need to work together to make a single choice for everyone. No more multiple meals here!
On the other nights, the kids are expected to try something that WE choose. Even if it’s roast, tuna, curry or quiche (meals that all our kids have traditionally resisted in the past).
A new take on dessert
We’ve also instituted a new approach to dessert as we found ourselves serving up some sort of dessert each night, which we found truly unnecessary – it had just become a habit we’d all fallen into.
Now, we have “Sundae Friday.” Every Friday is dessert night. To make up for not having dessert on the other nights of the week, we let the kids make the most elaborate sundaes possible. Ice cream, custard, whipped cream, topping, wafers, lollies, maple syrup – you name it, they can have it. But only for one night each week.
We were expecting a lot of opposition to this change given how entrenched our tradition of nightly dessert had become. But, we were pleasantly surprised at how quickly the kids adjusted to Sundae Friday. They only occasionally ask for dessert now – it helps that they REALLY make their dessert count now on Fridays!
What’s worked so far
Encouraging the kids, especially Gilbert, to be part of our menu planning has already made a big difference to how we eat as a family.
We are no longer preparing multiple meals each night – we have planned for the one meal and we’ve been sticking to it. That’s been a huge step forward and has certainly made things easier for us at night.
The girls have been enjoying a more varied diet. For too long they ate meals dictated by their brother’s preferences as we tended to cook a meal for the kids collectively and a separate one for us.
Now, they are loving the chance to try new things. We somehow missed how Gilbert’s attitude to food was affecting them (even though it was right there in our face, every day). We can finally help them develop healthy food habits and discover new and exciting flavours to try.
It’s also been encouraging to see Gilbert tolerate having something new on his plate every second night and not immediately explode in anger each time.
The kids have also expressed interest in helping to cook a meal each week which will be our next leap forward. Gilbert is about to start food tech at high school so we’re hoping to leverage off that and get him to practice food preparation at home too.
It’s going to be a slow process
To be honest, Gilbert is still not eating a lot of the food put in front of him on non-preferred meal nights. He might be tolerating having something new put in front of him every second night but he’s not eating a lot of it or giving it a proper go. We’re hoping this will improve with time and with him being exposed to new food at high school. At least, we’ve broken through his first barrier – there may be a few more to go, but we’re making progress.
How have you managed a restricted diet? Any hints or tips to share?
This post is part of a Parenting a Child with Special Needs blog hop where myself and other special needs bloggers share our thoughts on a set theme each month. This month’s theme is “food, diet & mealtime.” I’d love for you to check out all the other posts linked up for this month!
Food Issues: Are They Behavioral, Sensory Related or Medical? | Every Star is Different
Nutrition for Childhood Trauma | The Chaos and The Clutter
Mealtime Strategies for Kids with Hyperlexia and/or Autism | And Next Comes L
30 Things SPD Parents Secretly Wish You Knew About Their “Picky Eater” | Lemon Lime Adventures
The 7 Food Battles Not Worth Fighting About With Your Picky Eater with Special Needs | Finding the Golden Gleam