6 Tips for a More Relaxing Mealtime with a Child on the Autism Spectrum

Ever found yourself checking the menu before stopping at a restaurant to peek at the kid’s menu? Throwing some macaroni in your bag to take to a big family get-together? Bought a very specific type of chicken nugget in bulk when you saw it at the store?

Navigating mealtime with a child on the autism spectrum can be exhausting. And, as you know, that age old advice, “They will eat if they are hungry” rarely applies to children with autism. Understanding that children with ASD are five times more likely to experience persistent feeding problems than their typically developing peers adds a layer of challenge. And it’s not just about picky eating, but navigating a maze of sensory sensitivities and communication barriers. 

This situation can feel extremely frustrating and at times impossible, but incorporating some structured strategies might be the key to transforming mealtime into a more enjoyable experience for both you and your child. Take a look at some tips we’ve come up with and try some out this week.

  1. Rule Out Potential Medical Problems

Before even addressing behavioral strategies for mealtime challenges with a child on the autism spectrum, it’s crucial to consult with a healthcare professional, typically a gastroenterologist, to rule out any underlying conditions that could be exacerbating the issue. Conditions like acid reflux, constipation, and other gastrointestinal problems can significantly impact eating habits and comfort.

  1. Prioritize One Goal at a Time

When working on these mealtime challenges, be sure to concentrate on one goal at a time. This focused approach helps prevent overwhelming your child and allows for clearer tracking of progress. If your child struggles to sit at the dinner table for a specific amount of time, make that your first goal. Maybe it’s increasing the number of foods your child will eat, or improving their ability to feed themselves. Whichever target you choose first, stick to that one alone before moving on.

  1. Set Specific Meal and Snack Times

Establishing a structured schedule for meals and snacks can significantly benefit children on the autism spectrum, who often find comfort and security in routine. This predictability in eating times can alleviate some of the stress and uncertainty associated with mealtime. 

By making meal and snack times at predictable and regular intervals, your child will become more receptive to eating at those times, and not feel as hungry or irritable throughout the day. This often leads to healthier nutritional habits and a reduction in mealtime conflicts.

  1. Make Clear and Realistic Expectations

Creating clear and realistic expectations around mealtime will be the way your child understands and meets those expectations. To do this, inform your child about what behavior is expected at the table, without assuming they already know or pushing them beyond their comfort zone.

Utilizing tools such as a visual timer can be particularly effective, helping to manage the duration of the meal in a way that is visible and understandable for your child with autism. A visual chart or social story to make the expectations clear can be very helpful.

  1. Model Mealtime Behavior

Modeling positive mealtime behavior is always a powerful way to influence your child’s habits. By actively engaging in trying new foods yourself and maintaining a positive attitude towards mealtime, you set a practical example for your child to follow. 

Additionally, ensuring mealtime is free from distractions such as phones or television can create a calm environment that encourages focus on eating. This demonstrates to your child the importance of being present and engaged during meals.

  1. Stay Positive

Maintaining a positive atmosphere during meal times can significantly contribute to a more enjoyable and stress-free experience for your child. Positivity helps in creating an encouraging environment, where your child feels safe and motivated to try new foods or adhere to mealtime routines. Celebrate small victories, whether it’s trying a small bit of a new food or staying seated for part of the meal, with enthusiasm and warmth. Your upbeat attitude and affirmations can help foster your child’s healthy relationship with food.

Navigating mealtime with a child on the autism spectrum can present unique challenges, but with the right approach, it has potential to become a rewarding experience. Remember, every child’s journey is unique, and your patience, understanding, and support are key to their success. If you find yourself needing more guidance or support, don’t hesitate to reach out.