All children benefit from having structure during meals to promote healthy eating and appropriate mealtime behaviors. These guidelines can be especially helpful for kids with autism.
Keep mealtimes consistent
Children with autism thrive on regular schedules. Serve your meals at the same times each day in designated eating areas like the dining room or kitchen. To help your child learn to sit at the table, you should have him eat there regularly with your family, and with limited distractions. For example:
- Do not allow your child to eat in front of the television or other screen.
- Do not allow your child to stand or walk while eating a meal.
If your child currently does not sit at the table for meals, start with a short amount of time that your child is willing to stay there. This might be five minutes or as brief as 30 seconds. As your child is able to tolerate that period of time, slowly increase the amount of time at the table until you reach a typical meal time of 15 to 30 minutes.
Promote a balanced diet
Children should eat a balanced diet from all food groups. To encourage your child with autism to eat healthy foods, show your own willingness to eat a wide variety of foods.
- Try not to express your own dislikes, since most children will notice and copy this behavior. Children are more likely to try new, healthy foods if they see family members eating those foods.
- Continue to offer new foods several times. Most children require being exposed to a new food 15 to 20 times—or even more—before they will try or accept it. Start with only small bites or a small portion of new foods. Your child might try a new food but spit it out or say negative things about the food. Don’t worry; this doesn’t mean that one day he won’t come to like it.
Encourage good mealtime behaviors
When your child engages in any appropriate mealtime behavior, it is important to encourage these good behaviors by providing enthusiastic attention and praise right away.
- Use descriptive praise to tell your child exactly what you liked by saying things like, “Great job trying that new food.” Do this even when your child licks, tastes or bites a piece of the new food, even if he spits it out.
- Ignore unwanted mealtime behaviors, such as complaining or tantrums. Ignoring means that you remove all attention. Don’t make any verbal or facial expressions in response to these inappropriate behaviors.
Structuring mealtime will help to create a positive environment. Set clear expectations and boundaries. Reinforce appropriate mealtime behavior, and encourage openness to trying new foods. If you have concerns about your child’s health or eating habits, consult your pediatrician or learn more about our Feeding Program.
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.