Preparing healthy meals for an autistic child can pose a number of challenges, whether your child has sensory issues, a picky palate or requires a special diet. Tips and tricks that work for neurotypical children may not work at all with your autistic child, and creating struggles over food can worsen food aversions. Try these tips to prepare healthy foods your child with autism will eat and enjoy.
Cooking for an autistic child is not about catering to pickiness, but rather limiting battles, encouraging food variety and managing food intolerances. Many autistic children react poorly to gluten, the protein in wheat, or casein, the protein in dairy products, according to GFCFDiet.com. Avoiding gluten and casein requires substantial changes in how and what you cook. Other children may have a relatively limited list of acceptable foods or may object to foods prepared in certain ways.
Ideally, your child’s diet should include sources of protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. You do not need to worry about nutrition over the course of the day, but your child should consume a variety of foods over a week. Depending on your child, you may be able to sneak small amounts of fruit or vegetable purees into tolerated foods. If he will not eat or cannot eat a healthy variety of foods, speak with his health care provider about nutritional supplement drinks.
Cooking with Kids
Some children with autism enjoy the experience of cooking and may be more willing to experiment with foods if they aid in preparation. Allow kids to mix, blend and perform other safe kitchen tasks. Try cooking activities rich in sensory stimulation, like kneading bread dough. The multisensory experience involved in cooking may help autistic children to learn about more than just food as they master math and language skills.
Gluten and Dairy-Free
Children on a gluten-free and casein-free diet may be more willing to eat if fed familiar foods. Simple meals, like baked or roasted meat, potatoes or rice, and a steamed vegetable are naturally free of gluten and dairy. Ethnic foods are another option, if your child is more daring. Experiment with gluten-free baked goods, but be prepared for her to refuse the unfamiliar textures. Corn chips and corn tortillas, gluten-free candy, and packaged gluten- and dairy-free snack foods can make the transition easier.
Introduce new foods slowly. Your child may feel more comfortable seeing, smelling or licking a new food before he tastes it, ComeUnity.com suggests. If he has texture aversions, try pureeing new foods to make them more palatable, or combine them with foods he tolerates well. An occupational therapist may be able to assist with food therapy for a child with serious food aversions or sensory issues concerning food.