Food Selectivity: Battles at the Dinner Table
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.