Food Selectivity: Battles at the Dinner Table

Food Selectivity: Battles at the Dinner Table 600 401 bh360

food selectivity

Food Selectivity: Battles at the Dinner Table

Jared Freilich, MA, BCBA

It’s not unusual for children to be picky about food; it can be a pretty normal process as little ones develop a taste for what they prefer to eat, and what they don’t. They usually outgrow the fussiness as their palates mature.

But children with developmental disabilities often adopt persistent patterns of unhealthy or very narrow preferences about food that go miles beyond typical finicky childhood eating.

Narrow eating patterns can be based on types of food, including appearance, such as color and texture; how it smells; whether it’s too hot or too cold, and even where it comes from. Your child might demand animal-shaped chicken nuggets – forget about serving chicken nuggets that are not animal-shaped — and only McDonalds french fries.

For the child with autism, any deviation from their preferred food routine is unacceptable. It doesn’t matter what the rest of the family is eating. Coaxing the child to “just try it, it’s good,” can ignite a temper tantrum. During these food battles, the child might gag or spit out the foods they don’t want to eat. Others will pack food in their cheeks squirrel-style and refuse to swallow.

Parents may inadvertently reinforce their child’s narrow eating by withdrawing the food the child doesn’t want and giving them what they like. While this may result in some peace and quiet during mealtimes, it is at the expense of good nutrition and opportunities to teach better behavior. There are solutions, and understanding this cycle of inadvertent reinforcement is the first step.

A behavior analyst can help. By interviewing the parents and observing the mealtime battles, the behavior analyst could design an individualized plan that, if used consistently with patience over time, may help the child overcome the food issues.

For example, here’s one approach that uses a reward-based plan. This is a deliberately simplified plan of action.

I serve my daughter a salad. She throws a tantrum and refuses to eat it. I leave the salad in front of her, and add a plate of chicken nuggets, which I know she likes. I tell her she can eat a nugget, but only after she takes one bite of the salad. It may take some time, but once she eats a bite of the salad, she is rewarded with her preferred food. Gradually one bite of salad, alternating with one bite of chicken, will become two bites, then three. At some point, she will eat the salad without argument, because she knows her favorite food will also be a part of the meal.

Eating a greater variety of food means my daughter is learning to be flexible. And there’s less stress on the parent caregiver.

Learn more about ABA-based therapies that can address food selectivity and other challenging behaviors.

About the Author

Jared Freilich is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) who has provided applied behavior analysis (ABA)-based treatment to children and young adults with developmental disabilities since 1998. His interest in food selectivity began while in graduate school at California State University, Los Angeles, working with children with autism. Jared currently serves as the Director of the Insurance Department for California Psychcare and spends his time consulting on challenging cases, mentoring BCBA supervisees, and providing clinical quality control for treatment plans used by our behavioral health therapy teams.

Jared Powell
Jared Freilich, MA, BCBA

Director of Insurance
California Psychcare

aba center based
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) / Behavioral Therapy – Center Based

Our center-based ABA services are delivered at one of our behavioral health treatment centers. A center-based approach is beneficial because it provides an environment with minimal distractions and establishes a steady routine of going to a set location for learning.

aba home-based therapy icon
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) / Behavioral Therapy – Home Based

Our home-based ABA services are delivered in the home. Visits are scheduled to fit each family’s needs, preference and availability.

aba school
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) / Behavioral Therapy – School Based

Our school-based ABA services are delivered in the classroom. A school-based approach is beneficial because it provides the opportunity for the individual receiving therapy to participate in a normal school environment – often with their peers or siblings. Community immersion and integration is a major advantage of this type of program.

For more articles, visit our Stay Informed page.

Red Flags for Autism

Roxana Rabadi, PsyD, LCP

There is no greater joy than watching your baby develop as a little person, hearing them laugh and babble, and seeing them explore their surroundings. Some babies take a little longer than others to achieve expected milestones, from crawling to feeding themselves, and that’s not necessarily a problem; children develop at their own pace. But there are specific behaviors that can be indicative of a developmental disability such as autism.

Read More
Help for Families with Kids with Autism as School Resumes

David Yim, MA and Junxiang (Mark) Hao, BA

Many parents of children with autism are struggling to manage their own work or other responsibilities while their child is attending school virtually. Various services are available, including state-funded services available through local regional centers. Communicating with the service coordinator is key to accessing services.

Read More
Social Skills Development for Kids with Autism During COVID-19

Melina Barragan, MS, BCBA and Lilian Hernandez, MS, BCBA

Socials skills are essential to establish and maintain healthy social relationships. Kids with autism sometimes struggle with their social skills. Dealing with social distancing during COVID-19 is making social skills development more challenging. Telehealth has evolved as a new platform to help kids advance their social skills development.

Read More