I recently did an interview with Mikhaela Ackerman for her blog, Edge of the Playground. (It’s a great site about navigating autism for folks both on and off the spectrum, and you should read it 🙂) One question she asked was about how to help parents of autistic, picky eating children. I thought it was a great question, so I decided to write a bit more on the topic.
Before I get to any specific recommendations, I think it’s important to set the tone. If you approach this from the wrong perspective, you’re going to have a bad time.
Make sure you’ve got the right mentality.
Changing your child’s picky eating habits will require good intentions. Your goal is not to make them less picky just for the sake of it, nor is it to make your life easier. The thing about picky eating is that it’s not really a problem except for when it’s a problem. I spent 25 years living a generally happy and reasonably healthy life before I decided to change my diet. I’m incredibly glad I have changed, but my point is that it wasn’t necessary to survive.
Maybe you want them to eat healthier, help them deal with food-related anxiety, or something else. Whatever the specific reason, your underlying goal must be to make them happier, and they need to agree that it’s worth it.
Second, remember that you’re not going to change anyone’s diet overnight, and you don’t need to. If tonight’s not the night to try something new, that’s OK. There’s always tomorrow. For someone with deeply ingrained picky eating habits, this is not an easy change. If you try and force it, you’ll likely just cause them to dig in farther.
Finally, be sure you understand why they’re picky. Eating the wrong thing causes me very real physical and mental distress. It makes me retch, blood rushes to my head, and I get stomach pain. My anxiety spikes, resulting in chest pressure, throat tightness, and an inability to think straight. Not everything is that bad, but most new foods trigger at least some of these reactions. It’s not as simple as acknowledging that a food tastes bad or has a weird mouthfeel. It’s deeply unsettling, and something that I avoid at all costs. Understanding the very real impact of eating things they don’t like will make it easier to address their specific concerns.
All that said, here are my recommendations.
Tip #1: Make the dining table a safe space.
I remember the pressure to try new foods as a kid more than anything else. My parents, friends, and family would routinely try to get me to try different foods, but I was rarely interested because it always felt like a trap.
If I took the bait, they’d act like it was the most amazing thing they’d ever seen (“Yay!! I’m so glad you finally tried that!” or “See, that wasn’t so bad was it?”). Meanwhile, I was going through an internal struggle to choke down the food without gagging so as not to offend them.
Other times I’d say “no thanks”, but then they’d just keep asking. I never understood why. Did they have money riding on whether or not I ate the food? It got to the point where I’d hide at parties when the food came out because it wasn’t worth dealing with everyone.
A “friend” in middle school literally shoved sushi in my mouth once, so I spat it in his face and left. I’m still not sure why that wasn’t an appropriate response.
Either way, I couldn’t win. Regardless of what I did, it was a Big Deal. I give myself enough anxiety about my eating habits without anyone else’s help, and the constant attention makes it worse. These interactions drain so much energy that I lose my ability to function properly, let alone stomach something new.
It wasn’t until I met my wife that I understood how much of a problem this was. She couldn’t care less what I eat, and it’s freeing. With her, I don’t need to worry about masking. I get to focus entirely on the food.
So if you remember one thing from this post, it’s to avoid making a big deal out of your child’s pickiness. Home needs to be a safe place to try new foods, and also a safe place to say “no” when it’s not a good day to take that step.
Tip #2: Don’t hide, disguise, or lie about what’s in their food.
I hated when my parents intentionally hid what was in the food they gave me, or when they simply refused to tell me what was in it. There are a whole bunch of articles online sharing “clever” ways to trick your picky child into eating vegetables. They recommend hiding veggies inside things they like, cutting them up so small its not obvious they’re there, and other similar tricks. Don’t do that. It’s awful.
I’ve had so many negative experiences that I’m skittish about eating in general. The worst ones were almost all due to eating something unexpected. I still vividly remember a summer barbecue where my uncle gave me a hamburger with onions inside, but failed to tell me about the onions. I’ve never reacted so badly to a single bite, and I completely lost interest in hamburgers for years.
Thanks to experiences like this, I need to know what I’m eating in order to feel comfortable doing so. If I don’t know what’s in something, I probably won’t eat it. If someone lies to me about a dish or intentionally doesn’t tell me an ingredient, I stop eating their food. Now that I’ve developed gluten, dairy, and egg allergies, this is even more of a problem than it used to be.
At the end of the day, beating picky eating requires trust in your food and the people that prepare it. If you try to lie or disguise what’s in something, you’re just teaching your children that they can’t trust you.
Tip #3: Pick one thing at a time, and start small.
For me at least, eating anything new is a personal achievement. It’s overwhelming and anxiety inducing, so each bite uses a lot of spoons. If I try multiple new foods at once or too much of a single new thing, there’s a good chance I’ll react poorly even if I’d otherwise like the food.
Picking one ingredient at a time and trying it in small doses will increase your odds of success. I learned to like asparagus by eating minuscule bites off my wife’s plate. I slowly (over the course of days and weeks) increased the amount I’d eat in any one sitting, which gave me time to adjust to the new textures and flavors.
Another trick is to build on an existing dish that they already like. For example, I love roast potatoes covered in olive oil, salt, and pepper. I developed my taste for carrots by adding small amounts to the mix. Carrots and potatoes have a similar flavor profile, so they naturally go well together. Cooking them with the same oil and spice made it feel less like trying a new food and more like a slight variation of an old food.
Your goal is to slowly and gradually add more of the new thing. This will make it less jarring, and easier to tolerate.
So those are my three tips. Please do let me know what you think. If you find this post helpful, I want to hear about it. If not, I want to hear that, too 🙂 Leave a comment, send a message on Facebook, or tweet @TheAspieChef.