Building Good Nutrition In Children With Autism

April is National Autism Awareness Month, a nationwide effort to promote autism awareness, inclusion, and self-determination for all. If you have a child with autism, all of the conflicting information about what is “healthy” can be tricky. Plus, balancing your child’s behavior and your own feelings around food can also pose challenges as to what you end up feeding your child. Here are a few simple strategies to build good nutrition for your child as they grow.

Prioritize Family Meals

A sit-down family meal is crucial for helping your child form a healthy relationship with food. Plus, sitting down for a meal can help keep your child more focused and in-tune with their hunger cues. If the whole family isn’t available for dinner, maybe breakfast is the best time for a nice sit-down meal together. Try to get the kids involved with meal preparation as well, such as breaking lettuce leaves for a delicious salad or washing fresh berries for breakfast. If they prepare a healthy item, then they may be more inclined to eat it.

Don’t Give In To Battles Over Food

Food should not be the source of anger or frustration with your child. Let them have a say in regards to food preferences, but not to the point that you become a short order cook. If you continue to prepare substitutions, this will just make your child hold out longer next time to get what they want. Avoid using the word “picky,” as this can reinforce stubborn behavior around food. And instead of forcing your child to finish their plate, try to take a more relaxed attitude and let your child learn about their internal hunger and fullness. Encourage, but don’t force, a taste of everything prepared for the meal. Try to keep primarily nutritious foods in the house so that junk food is not readily accessible.

Lead By Example

You would be surprised just how much your child looks up to you and watches your every move. Children also have a strong impulse to imitate, so it is important to set a good example. Try to keep a positive approach when it comes to food and nutrition. Instead of complaining about your body or the number on the scale, focus on emphasizing nourishing foods and talking with your child about feelings of fullness. Encourage appropriate portion sizes and try to avoid overeating.

Be Patient

Taste buds change as a child grows, and it may even take up to 10 times of seeing a food before a child decides to even taste it. Try to reintroduce foods in a creative way—if your child hates meatloaf, try baking meatloaf in cupcake tins for a new shape that may encourage your child to reconsider the dish. Pairing unfamiliar foods with familiar foods can also help. If your child loves carrots but hasn’t ever tried Brussels sprouts, roast them together and serve them as a combined side dish.

Stefani Pappas, MS, RDN, CDN, CPT, is a Clinical Dietitian Nutritionist at St. Francis Hospital. She also provides private and group nutrition counseling at her office in Great Neck, NY. Visit her website for more information.

Stefani Pappas Sassos
Long Island Weekly columnist Stefani Pappas, RDN, CPT, is a clinical dietitian at St. Francis Hospital. She also provides private and group nutrition counseling at her office in Great Neck. Visit Stef Health Tips for more information.

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