Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused
By Erica Kearney, M.A., LABA, BCBA
[This column was published in the West Springfield Republican and The Patriot Ledger.]
Many children, with and without developmental disabilities, are described by their parents to be picky, or selective, eaters.
Some selective eaters will only consume a small variety of foods. Most parents report that their children may only eat a few different foods, but their appetites are very good. In my experience, both as a professional working with students with developmental disabilities and as a parent of three very different eaters, chicken nuggets and French fries always seem to be kid-approved!
Why do children become selective eaters? The reasons vary from child to child. For some, it may have to do with the food itself. The smell, texture, appearance, temperature, or color of a food may be off putting to a child. For others, it may have to do with how the food is presented. Some children do not like it when their food touches other food on the same plate. Or they want their food prepared or cut in a certain way.
No one wants a child to go without food and not get enough nutrients. Fortunately, selective eating is a common issue for children, and there are steps you can take to improve you child’s eating habits.
The first step in expanding the number foods a child will eat is getting her to try new foods, even if it’s just a taste. If she is reluctant or resistant to trying new foods, reinforce (reward) her with food she enjoys when she does try new things. For example, ask her to try a tiny bite of something different before having her chicken nuggets and French fries.
Make sure your child clearly understands the expectation (e.g. “If you try this new food, you will be able to have some of your favorite food.”). It may be helpful to write it down, use a first-then picture schedule, or use other visuals to help her understand that she can have some of her favorite chips if she takes one bite of pasta. Make sure she gets the chips exactly as promised. If she takes the bite of pasta and you say, “how about one more bite?” instead of giving the chips, she will be less likely to try things in the future because you did not play by the rules. How would you feel if your boss told you that you could go home as soon as you finish 50 reports, but after you work hard and finish the 50 reports, your boss says, “how about 10 more”?
Another way to help increase the likelihood a child will try new foods is to introduce foods that are similar to foods she already likes. For example, if your child likes apples, have her try pears. If she likes cold slices of cheese and toast, have her try a grilled cheese sandwich. If she does not typically like hot foods, start with cold foods or whatever she typically prefers.
If you minimize your child’s opportunities to snack throughout the day, you will maximize the possibility of success in getting her to try new foods. If your child has already filled up on preferred snacks throughout the day, she will be less likely to want to eat a whole meal or try new things. It may also decrease the chances of the potato chips being worth taking the bite of pasta if she was snacking on chips or similar favorites throughout the day. Introduce new foods right before the child’s typical mealtime so she is more likely to be hungry and willing to try them.
Be persistent and patient in your attempts to introduce new foods to your “picky” eater. Do not expect him or her to go from eating only five foods to 10 foods in one day, one week, or even in a month. Be content with small victories. If your child becomes more willing to try different foods, it increases the likelihood that he or she will find a new food that they like and naturally start eating larger portions of the item – and more willing to try another new food.
Erica Kearney M.A., LABA, BCBA, is Executive Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee, Mass. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit www.mayinstitute.org.