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How to Introduce New Foods to Kids

Feeding problems in kids with autism is very common. A lot of times these children become very rigid with what they will and will not eat. On this blog, we’re explaining how to introduce new foods to kids. Not only children, but young adults as well.

Introducing New Foods to a Picky Eater

Being a picky eater kind of comes with the territory. We work with a lot of kids who only eat white foods or only food that came from a certain store or only fast food. I had a student recently who was on an overnight camp and the parents tried to send up through that he would like. They knew that there would be pizza, chicken nuggets, and french fries so they didn’t send that stuff. But, it was different pizza, chicken nuggets, and french fries than he was used to at home. We didn’t anticipate that. This was a problem because he was there for a whole week. If he didn’t eat any of the food, he was going to be very hungry. 

This was a student who was very capable of rationalizing, and talking to you and explaining. He really understood you but would just fall apart every mealtime and refuse to eat anything and say it was horrible. It was disgusting. So we had a simple solution, which was just offering a little bit of reinforcement for trying the food. We found that was motivating for him. And we offered it to him contingent on him just trying the food. It worked. He was able to at least get through the week and try some of the food that was offered at meals and then access that reinforcement.

How to Introduce New Foods to Kids with Autism

So many times, I’ll go into a home and parents will say they really want their child to eat more foods. They’re not eating enough food, or they’re not eating a variety of food. And those are two major issues. They’re major issues for so many reasons. One, because if your child’s not eating, that’s a safety thing. It’s also very much a cultural thing. If you’re going to a party, and there’s food served at the party – or if food is very much a part of your culture – you need your child to be able to eat food to not only sustain themselves, but also to be a part of your community.

And I know as a mom, when my kids are being picky about what I’m making for dinner, that dinner time does not go well. It’s a disaster when one kid is insisting that this food is horrible and it’s disgusting. I’m not going to eat it. Just as a family to be3 able to make one dinner and sit down and have everybody enjoy it is a huge goal. I’m sure it’s a goal for a lot of people. So here are four tips for how to introduce new foods to kids.

#1 Get Parent Buy In

The very first thing I would start with is the parents. You need parent buy in for this and you need parent follow through. Because I can take a child into a clinic and teach the student to eat lots of foods. But if that follow through isn’t there at home, and the student goes back to being offered three different types of things before they get what they want, then all my teaching is in vain. So really make sure that you explain the procedure to parents and that you have that parent follow through as well as that parent buy in.

#2 Start a Food Log

A good way to get that buy in is to get parents to start tracking the food the student eats with a food log. Tell them to record just what their kid is eating and make no changes.This is a good way for them to show that they’re invested. The food log is a really great way to open that discussion with parents. So you want your child to eat more, show me now what he is or isn’t eating. 

As a BCBA, that food log is also very valuable because it shows us what the student is eating and if there are any patterns. I’ll look at a food log lots of times and think oh, the student only eats white foods or the student only eats yellow vegetables. 

So oftentimes I’ll look at that food log and say okay, if the student is only eating white foods, what other white foods can we introduce into the students diet? I’m not going to go with broccoli as the first food if the student is only eating white foods. Likewise, if the student is eating bananas but nothing else, it shows me that they like all mushy foods. So what other types of softer foods can this student try and maybe make part of the repertoire? 

I find that if you can look at that and get some success from just taking the food that they already eat and expanding it a little bit, that’s way better than trying something completely brand new that a student is going to be disgusted by. 

#3 Look at How a Student Consumes Food

Another thing, too, is looking at the way students consume food. I had a student one time who only ate goldfish crackers and cheese sandwiches. But the goldfish crackers had to be served in a little baggie because that’s how he got them at school. He couldn’t have them served any other way. They couldn’t be in a bowl. So the very first place we started was showing him that he was eating goldfish crackers regardless of whether they were in a bag or a bow. So we got him to tolerate that. And then with the cheese sandwiches we got him to tolerate eating not only when they were cut like a T but also an X. 

You might start with just having a certain food on their plate, having them touch it, and then maybe having them touch it to the mouth. Typically we would start with a first then contingency. First you try a little bit of food and then you get something. What they get should not be part of their day to day repertoire, it needs to be something that’s special.

#4 Teach Students Away from Mealtime

Know your student. If your student is very sensitive to this, I wouldn’t use it during mealtime. Not during any time they’re expecting to eat because to them all of a sudden you’ve changed all their food. I would do it at a separate time so that you can keep mealtime as rigid and structured as they need it to be so that they’re still eating. And it’s still a happy and comfortable situation. Then teach them how to try new foods at a separate time using that first then contingency using that reinforcement. You should move very, very slowly. Starting with just exposure or being comfortable around it. I wouldn’t force them to eat it right at first or to eat a certain amount. Go by what they’re comfortable with. You don’t want any student to become completely upset and nervous about what you’re having them do.

When we first teach these things, we teach them away from mealtime because we don’t want to teach students that if they don’t want this certain food they don’t get access to food at all. You can’t have students skip mealtime. And you don’t want to make eating aversive.

But maybe do it just before lunch when they’re hungry and not just after breakfast when they’ve just eaten a bunch of stuff. But when they’re hungry, we can say okay, let’s try these small amounts. If you take it great, if you don’t we’re going to push it away. We’ll try again in five minutes. Then when it’s scheduled meal time you get to eat what you normally eat. 

How to Introduce New Foods to Kids – Conclusion

So we talked about how to introduce new foods to kids by getting parents to buy in and start a food log. Then we talked about where to go from there and how to start exposing our kids not during mealtime but at a separate time with very, very small changes in their diet. So click on the link below for our free food log so you can start working with your picky eaters!

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