How to Get Your Child with Special Needs to Eat Healthy

For kids of all ages, mealtime can be difficult. For some, once they get a taste for foods like pizza, hamburgers or chicken nuggets, everything else pales in comparison. Picky eating is common for children, and it is especially so for those children with special needs. This can be tied to unhealthy weight gain, which unfortunately can be endemic to neurodivergent children: a 2017 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that almost 33% of children with autism were severely overweight, compared to 13% of neurotypical children.

So parents will understand that forming new habits, battling unique textures, and creating lifelong, healthy eating habits can take some effort. Nonetheless, there are a few tips to try out below—if one fails, give the others a go! Each child responds to situations and opportunities differently, so somewhere in this list there may be an option that resonates.

1 Increase Independence by Turning Meals into Options

Empower your child at mealtime by giving them two or three health options from which they can pick. They may ask for something else—be sturdy but kind. Share that these are the options that we have for tonight, a different fun meal can come another day. 

2 Involve Your Child in Cooking

If your child is involved in the cooking process, they will have more autonomy over (and a greater appreciation for) their food. To begin, start with a food item you know your child will love, like cookies. Bake cookies together one weekend; your child may find that they enjoy the texture of the egg, flour, and sugar batter. This may reinforce that cooking can be fun and yield delicious results. Then, involve them in another dish—a nutritious weeknight meal. Start from the beginning and go shopping together at the store before donning aprons in the kitchen to make the experience special and complete. 

3 Spiral in Gateway Foods

If your child doesn’t enjoy bell peppers, the way to change their taste isn’t by serving them raw peppers and asking them to eat it. Instead, pair this food with another that will invite your child to discover how bell peppers can be best enjoyed. This may involve serving the vegetable with a preferred dipping sauce or cooking the bell peppers into a beloved rice dish or omelet. Teach your child that vegetables are in so many different foods and because they are cooked a certain way they can have an enhanced flavor.

4 Gradually Replace Unhealthy Snacks

We’ve all been the culprit in over-snacking. Chips, cookies, candy—we all get the craving. This can be changed, but it must be done gradually over time. Don’t get rid of a favorite treat cold turkey. Instead, incentivize junk food: your child can eat the ice cream, but first they must have some carrot sticks. Or, add in healthier snacks into their lunchbox alongside the less healthy ones to ensure a more balanced diet.

5 Lead by Example

Whether you know it or not, your child will take after your habits—the good and the bad ones. If you are trying to change your child’s diet, first examine your own. Hold yourself to the same standard you would your child, and then together take the journey toward a more nutritious lifestyle.