Kids with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDDs) often become picky eaters. Usually, the issues are related to oral-motor or sensory problems. In other words, they either have physiological trouble eating certain foods (e.g., getting it into their mouth, chewing it, swallowing it, etc.), or they find specific physical characteristics (e.g., texture, color, smell, temperature, etc.) of certain foods off-putting.
It can obviously be frustrating for parents and caregivers when kids refuse to eat certain foods. But it can also become a significant health concern, particularly if a child avoids one or more entire food groups or key sources of particular nutrients. It’s important to know when to be concerned about picky eating in children with IDDs. And it’s also important to have strategies for addressing picky eating in children with IDDs.
As a side note, it’s also important to consult your child’s doctor about these concerns. Many kids with IDDs have digestive problems that can contribute to picky eating and cause pain, nutritional deficiencies, and other complications.
Finding some effective ways of addressing picky eating in children with IDDs will help make your life easier, and it will help your son or daughter develop more flexibility while protecting their health. It will probably take some trial and error to figure out which approaches work best for you and your child, so be patient and don’t give up if some attempts prove unhelpful.
Encouraging Less Picky Eating in Kids with IDDs
- Go into this with reasonable expectations. If your child refuses to eat a certain food, don’t expect him or her to finish a whole plate of it. Also, expect tantrums, aggression, or other resistance. It will happen.
- Eat with your child and demonstrate that eating is pleasurable, keeping the mood light and positive. Model the mealtime behaviors and attitudes that you want from your child.
- Avoid making completely separate meals for your child. The more their meal looks like everyone else’s, the better. Plus, it’s not helpful to reinforce that they can get whatever they want if they put up a fight.
- Choose to tackle food challenges when your child is in a good mood, alert, interested, and not notably stressed from other factors.
- Remain upbeat and encouraging; never scold or punish your child for being uncooperative or for not liking something.
- Address only one mealtime behavior or specific food/food characteristic at one time; trying to address more than one challenge at the same time is overwhelming and excessively stressful.
- Choose a reasonable goal, and make sure everyone (including your child) knows exactly what it is.
- Start small. For example, if you’re encouraging your child to try a new food, start with a tiny amount and gradually build up to a regular serving size over multiple tries. If you’re trying to get your child to stay at the table longer, start with just a small increase in time over the usual.
- Don’t push your luck. If your child achieves a goal (such as eating three bites of a food or staying at the table for 10 minutes), don’t see if you can push it further. Be happy the goal was met, let your child know that they met the goal, and save any increase for next time.
- Offer plenty of praise when your child takes positive steps toward goals (even if they aren’t met). But be specific with praise. While the occasional “Great job!” is fine, it’s much more useful to label what your child did well. For example, you might say, “I’m very proud of you for taking that bite and trying this new food” or “You did a good job sitting calmly at the table for 10 minutes.”
- Let your child help you prepare foods you want him or her to try.
- Give your child choices about which foods they try. For example, if you want to serve a new vegetable, let your child choose which one it will be from three or four options.
- Be patient and persistent. Even adults without an IDD typically have to try a food seven or more times to develop a taste for it if they don’t naturally gravitate towards it.
- Try modifying foods your child doesn’t like to make them more in line with foods he or she does like as a transitional step. For example, if your child favors soft foods, try pureeing a disliked vegetable that’s hard or crunchy.
- Maintain a food journal so you can track your child’s progress and hone in on common denominators that cause problems.