Healthy eating in childhood helps to set up good habits for life. This is especially important for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who have an increased risk for excessive weight gain, selective eating and nutrient deficiencies.
To help your child with autism stay healthy, start with a regular meal and snack schedule
. Most people—adults and children—need to eat every 2 ½ to 3 ½ hours. This schedule typically includes breakfast, lunch and dinner and two to three snacks. An average meal should last between 15 and 30 minutes, but not more than 45 minutes. This general timing helps to ensure that children are hungry for the next meal.
Fruits, veggies and other nutritious foods
Throughout each day, children should eat from all five major food groups, which include:
- Meats and beans (or other proteins)
Each of these food groups provides a different set of vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients like carbohydrates, proteins and fats. It’s OK if your child only eats a few foods in each food group, as long as those foods are consumed on a daily basis in a balanced way. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has created the My Plate educational resource to help guide you in balancing your family’s diet. Following My Plate also helps you with appropriate portion sizes based on age.
Try to include foods from three different food groups in each meal and foods from two different food groups in your child’s snacks. Ideally, one of these foods should always be a fruit or vegetable. It is also important to give your child the correct serving size. The nutrition facts panel on food labels can help you determine the recommended portion size. Many children with autism benefit from a visual schedule. Consider creating one for meal times.
What to avoid
It is important to limit snacking between scheduled meals and snacks. Grazing, or eating small amounts of food throughout the day, isn’t healthy. At an identified meal or snack time, portion out the correct serving size and put it into an appropriate container, such as small bowl or baggie. Reducing grazing also means limiting access to sugar-sweetened beverages, such as juice and soda. Caloric drinks should only be offered as part of a meal. Limit juice to no more than 8 ounces a day, and avoid soda whenever possible.
Establishing healthy eating patterns for children with autism helps set them up for better health outcomes through life. If you have concerns about your child’s nutrition, speak to a registered dietitian.
We recognize that every child is unique and that the content of this article may not work for everyone. This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. We hope these tips will serve as a jumping-off point for finding the best approach to helping a child with autism. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.