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Persuading Picky Eaters

Having tiny food critics at the table is tough enough, but children with autism can make dinner time battles unbearable.

I know I did it to myself. When my son Jefferson was 3 years old, he looked at the pasta I had made (that included a green herb in the sauce), then shifted his gaze to me and said  indignantly: “I won’t eat this! It has grass in it!”

Instead of asking him to try the grass-shaped dill in the pasta anyway, I replied, “Just eat the apples and chicken.” Major blunder.

For our family, the decision has haunted our dinner table for years. Two years later, Jeff was still a picky eater and our younger son Jonny, who was 3 years old at the time, refused most foods because of sensory issues linked to autism.  Like many kids in his preschool class, Jon’s list of approved dinner menu items (and most meal times, for that matter) included four things: mac and cheese, chicken nuggets, goldfish crackers and strawberries.

Concerned that he wasn’t getting enough variety in his diet, I sought help from professionals. One occupational therapist suggested we have Jon try a bite of the new food, and have a bowl he could spit it into if he didn’t like it. That worked great – for Jonny.  He’d put the food in his mouth, spit it out and we’d hand him a favorite food for trying.

His teacher, who has helped many kids on the spectrum learn to eat a variety of foods, blanched when she heard what we’d been told to do. “You’re teaching him to spit out his food?” she asked after school one day. “That’s not good.”

She suggested instead that we give him one bite of his favorite food (strawberries) every time he ate one bite of the new food. And he only got a strawberry if he chewed and swallowed the new food. We applied the same rule to Jeff, who put up a little resistance. It was harder with Jonny.

We would sit quietly, repeating to him, “Just one bite, Jonny. Then you can have the strawberry. One bite, then the strawberry. It’s easy. Just one bite.” And we’d start in our slow litany again as he cried. Occasionally, we’d take a time out before returning to the table. Jefferson would encourage him as well, which was a huge help and quite unexpected for a 5-year-old who was stuck with us at the dinner table.

Over time Jonny started to take one bite, then two, until he was eating a full serving on his plate. New foods have been added to our list of “favorites,” including spaghetti, meatloaf and even peas. And we no longer have a plate of Option 2 available.

What we’ve come to understand is that even typically developing children must be presented with a new food many times before they begin to like it. Experts such as nutritionist Sue Gilbert, M.S. say that while it’s normal for kids to have a limited scope of foods they’ll try — being a "picky eater" and a kid go hand-in-hand — there are ways to incorporate new foods into a child’s repertoire – even kids on the autism spectrum.

So what’s the most important part? Make sure they’re hungry.

Thomas R. Linscheid, Ph.D. – head psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio – says to set a mealtime when you know the child will be hungry and don’t offer a replacement meal if they won’t eat the new food. If marooned on a desert island with nothing to eat but worms and one magic food tree that offered half of the calories you needed each day, Linscheid explained most people would never try the worms and just lose weight slowly. If there was nothing but worms to eat, however, people (even kids) eventually would try the worms and even learn to like them.

So would my kids try worms in that desert island setting? Who knows?

But I do know one thing:  They still won’t eat pasta with grass in it.

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