Good Nutrition for Sensationally Picky Eaters - Guest Post

Did you know that 75% of children who have an autistic spectrum diagnosis have atypical feeding patterns and limited food preferences? Additionally, 50% of the autism population are hypersensitive to textures and lumps in their food? (Mayes and Calhoun, 1999)

I bet as the parent of an SPD/ASD kid you are NOT at all surprised by that -- right?  I'm not. 

So, when I saw one of my reader's blog, Healthy, Green and Frugal (three things I am not) I thought -- hey, who better to help me shed a little light on eating issues than this nutritionally savvy mom of two boys with sensory issues?  And let's be honest, advice from someone who truly gets your life is the best -- right?

So, grab your fork and get ready to wet your appetite -- and hopefully your kids' too!


Hi! My name is Rebecca. First of all, I must say that I’m a big fan of Hartley’s blog. It has provided me with much-needed information, encouragement, and humor. Needless to say, I was flattered when she asked me to write a guest post about how to get our sensationally picky eaters the healthy nourishment they need. Given that my blog is called Healthy, Green and Frugal, you can imagine that instilling healthy eating habits in my two young boys is one of my top priorities. Unfortunately, their sensory issues sometimes make this a bit of a challenge.

I’ve always had a vision of my children sitting happily together at the dinner table each night eager to partake of the nutritious meals I lovingly prepared for them. Wrong. The reality is that I’m lucky to get either of my children to sit at the table for any length of time, and I often make two (sometimes three) meals each night - one for me and my husband and one for my children.

I have resolved to let my fantasy go for now. I can live with the fact that feeding my children often involves chasing them through the house with a fork. I can even live with those odd comments like “I don’t want that bean because it looks squishy” or “get that red stuff off of it” or “I only want strawberries that look interesting”. Okay then.

The one thing I cannot let go is my vision to get as much healthy, nutritious food into my children as possible. No child deserves anything less. Certainly not one who is already stressed by sensory issues and needs all the help he can get to run at peak physical capacity. No matter how picky my children can be, I stand firm in my core guidelines regarding food - a diet rich in whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables with minimal amounts of processed foods, hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, and artificial additives.

I relentlessly present new and healthy foods to my children, no matter how many times I get rejected. I am hopeful that one day my persistence will pay off. In the meantime, I’ve amassed a bag of tricks I use when I just need to get the food in their bodies. I hope it’s helpful to you. I’d love to hear about the ways you get your picky kids to eat.

Deceptively Nutritious. When all else fails, I can always manage to sneak in good nutrition under the radar. Here are some of my favorite methods:

Smoothies. I add spinach, carrots, sweet potatoes, yogurt, and all kinds of fruit.

Popsicles. I pour my left over smoothies into popsicle molds to make frozen treats that are way more nutritious than what you can buy at the store. Plus, popsicles are a feast of sensory input!

Purees. I freeze vegetable puree in ice cube trays and add them to all sorts of things, including pancake batter, french toast, smoothies, spaghetti sauce and vegetable soup. I get the best results from sweet potatoes and butternut squash.

Ovaltine. Perhaps it’s not the pinnacle of good nutrition, but if the kids are going to have chocolate milk, it’s certainly better than the alternative in the sense that it’s enriched with vitamins and minerals.

Make Their Favorites as Nutritious as Possible. Once you’ve identified at least one or two foods that you know your child will eat, do everything you can to make it as healthy as possible. Use the highest-quality nutrient-dense ingredients you can find. Enrich it with vegetable purees if you can. Here are my mainstays:

Peanut Butter Sandwich. Since my kids eat this nearly every day, I’ve tried my best to make sure the components are as nutritious as possible. I use peanut butter without hydrogenated oil and whole grain bread or high-fiber, whole grain crisp bread (like Wasa or Ryvita).

Sweet Potato. My kids will almost always eat this, so I make it often. 

Wet Their Appetite with Books. Children’s books are filled with appetizing pictures and alluring prose about food. Books often inspire my kids to try new and unfamiliar foods, which they would otherwise resist with the stubbornness of a mule. Books also help me to get my little busy bodies to stay put long enough to eat a descent meal. One of our favorite games is to read a book and listen for certain words to prompt us to take bites. For example, we’ll read Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type and the boys take a bite each time the word “cow” is uttered (or uddered as the case may be). This really appeals to my son’s sense of order and need to follow “the rules”. The possibilities are endless. 

Get Them Invested in the Process. My kids are always more likely to eat food if they were somehow involved in getting it to the table, whether that means they helped grow it, picked it out at the farmer’s market, earned the money to buy it, or helped unload it from the car (which doubles as heavy work). My son’s newest hobby is clipping coupons for foods he wants to eat. I love his budding sense of frugality as well as the fine motor skills he’s developing from all the cutting!

Go Nuts. Digging through the nut shell to find the hidden treasure inside has been a favorite snack/activity at our house this summer. There are all kinds of choices to suit your child’s skill level - peanuts are easiest, while pistachios, walnuts, and pecans are a bit harder. A great side benefit is that the kids are getting a fantastic fine motor workout and practice using nutcracker tools.

Raccoon Feed. More than a year ago, my oldest requested we call him “raccoon”. It was such a fitting nickname for both boys (picture raccoons digging through our pantry) that it stuck and our longstanding imaginative play related to raccoons was born. One part of this play is “raccoon feed”, which is basically a trail mix made of whatever I happen to have on hand (dry cereal, nuts, goldfish, raisins, dried bananas). We often serve it in a little metal bowl just like they do at the zoo. There are days when one of my children has eaten scarcely a thing all day. Then, as soon as we settle down for bed, he realizes he is hungry.....enter raccoon feed.

Fun With Straws. My children crave oral motor stimulation, so a straw is likely to make any food more appealing to them. Drinking applesauce, yogurt, and smoothies through a straw has been a hit for us (making sure to adjust the thickness of the straw and the food for maximum resistance). We’ve also had success drinking sweet potatoes from those really big straws (only $1 a pack at the local Chinese market). A good on-the-go option is the pouches of organic fruit puree made by Happy Baby that have a little sucking device built right in.

Hidden Treasure. My kids have a little plastic treasure chest that goes with their pirate ship play set. They will eat most anything if I put it in the treasure chest and hide it somewhere. Good thing it’s washable!


A super big thank you to Rebecca for taking the time to give us a little help with our picky eaters.  I sure needed it!

If you have questions about how she does what she does, check out the 'Kid Section' of her blog here.

I've got to grab my vitamix now and make a smoothie!

Photos:  Aren't those boys just ADORABLE?  Gosh they're cute!


Jaimee said...

LOVE this post!! I've been in the picky eater battle for years, which is a challenge, but then add in trying to get the most healthy things in their bellies and the challenge is magnified, because the options are very limited to begin with.

I have been doing purees for a long time, and have had many successes with the Sneaky Chef cookbooks. Love the "Racoon Feed" : ) We do a similar "Snack Salad." Straws work for us, too, with yogurt and applesauce, and I'm trying to sneak in portions of smoothies here and there (that I'm already making for myself).

My win this week was emptying the liquid from freezer pops and refilling the plastic sleeves with a mixture of applesauce and v-8 fusion juice. It's a great popsicle texture and made entirely of fruit and vegetable juices. I'm eyeing some silicone squeeze-pop molds now!

In Real Life said...

I love this post, it's great advice! I like the idea of incorporating healthy foods into games and imaginative play. My children are a bit older, 8 and 10, but you've given me an idea to have them looking through colourful healthy cook books to inspire them to try new foods. Thank you!

3boys said...

This is awesome!! I'm always looking for new ideas. My son is always wanting to eat. He is very oral, but also so active that he burns everything up so fast. My biggest problem is that he is very allergic to peanuts. So it takes out a lot of things. Thankfully they make a lot of things with cashews.

Rebecca at Healthy Green and Frugal said...

I'm so glad you found these tips useful! ☺☺☺

Thanks for sharing your ideas, as well. Jaimee, your freezer pop method is very clever. I also like how you reuse the sleeves - very resourceful! I got some silicone molds at Target a couple years ago that work so well.

Looking at cookbooks with older kids sounds like fun. I bet they have a lot to contribute in the kitchen - both in terms of skills and ideas.

Yes, the nut allergy thing is challenging. I know a number of people who deal with that. I've heard Sun Butter is good (made from sunflower seeds).

Thanks again for the kind comments!

happy suburban housewife and mom said...

great post, i'm a momma to 2 boys aged 3 and 5 with spd we have learned alot through out ot meals. food on a stick works for us, even kabob sticks and those little drink swords help make eating fun. and remember a new food usually has to be introduced 10 times before it is accepted/ rejected. the first rule in our house is you may not like it or want to eat it but it has to go on to your plate. which may lead to smelling, licking, and - gasp- even eating latter on! thanks for all your great ideas!!

happy suburban housewife and mom said...

great post, i'm a momma to 2 boys aged 3 and 5 with spd we have learned alot through out ot meals. food on a stick works for us, even kabob sticks and those little drink swords help make eating fun. and remember a new food usually has to be introduced 10 times before it is accepted/ rejected. the first rule in our house is you may not like it or want to eat it but it has to go on to your plate. which may lead to smelling, licking, and - gasp- even eating latter on! thanks for all your great ideas!!