Kids with autism eating healthy snacks.

Healthy Snacks for Kids with Autism

All parents want to ensure that their children are getting the nutrients they need. However, getting kids to eat healthy meals is not always an easy task. For parents who have children with autism, they face a unique set of challenges in terms of food aversions and habitual eating behaviors.

It’s not uncommon for a child to be a picky eater, and this can be especially true for a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Children with autism typically repeat behaviors and have narrow, obsessive interests. These types of behaviors not only affect your child in day to day life, but they can also bleed over into eating habits and food choices. This can make mealtimes difficult, leaving some parents frustrated and unsure of what to do to help their child.

If you are stressed over your child’s current nutritional intake, it’s important to focus on how meals and snacks are delivered. Making mealtime fun and engaging, playing off your child’s own specific preferences, is a great place to start!

Why Do Children with Autism Struggle With Food?

Research shows that despite these challenging feeding behaviors, children with autism consume similar amounts of nutrients when compared to children without autism. While a greater percentage of children with autism met recommendations of vitamin K and E, children in both groups required more specific nutrients, including fiber, calcium, and potassium. In another study, it was found that children with autism showcased a significantly lower intake of calcium and protein. 

This may be due to the rigidity in their food selection and behaviors during family mealtimes (e.g. food has to be served a specific way, meals have to be prepared a specific way). This is most often the factor that increases stress for parents of children diagnosed with autism. Some of these stressors include:

Increased Sensitivity

First, a child with ASD may not just be sensitive to the taste of a particular food, but also the color, smell, or texture. The way a food feels in your child’s mouth can affect whether they like or dislike the food, rather than just the flavor. This hypersensitivity to texture can make it difficult to find foods that satisfy a diet for children with autism while providing nutritional value.

Ritualistic Habits

Also, if you have a child with autism you already know how important routines and rituals are for your child. This can make it difficult to introduce new foods to your child, or cause your child to adapt ritualistic eating habits like making sure no foods touch, using the same plate at every meal, ensuring that a particular food is placed on the same part of a plate, or others. 

Difficulty Focusing

On top of that, children with autism may have a harder time focusing on one thing for a long period of time. As a result, your child may not be eating enough food as they lose interest in sitting at the table eating a meal from start to finish. Introducing snacks for your child can help, but coming up with healthy snacks for kids with autism that also satisfy their tastes is also a challenge. 

As a parent, you may be concerned about the amount of food and the nutritional value of the food your child is intaking. Proper nutrition ensures healthy development and can reduce the risk for social difficulties and poor academic achievement. So how can you as a parent help your child improve their relationship with food and support healthy habits in an autism diet? Making mealtimes fun and engaging is a great place to start! 

What Types of Snacks Should I Be Feeding My Child with Autism?

When it comes to the nutritional needs of your child with autism, they require the same nutrients as any other child their age. While some parents remove casein (milk protein) and gluten (wheat protein) from their child’s diet in order to improve their child’s autism symptoms, researchers are concerned about alternative diets in terms of adequate nutrition.

Depending on your child’s ritualistic behaviors, you may feel as though your options are limited in terms of what they’ll eat. Specific feeding issues can range from mild to severe, causing children to be selective with the color or texture of their food. In other cases, motor deficits or gastrointestinal problems may deter a child from eating. This is why you need to work closely with your child’s therapist and/or nutritionist, as each child is unique.

Finding a list of healthy snacks that your child loves make takes some experimentation. Here are some suggestions:

  • Ants on a log, made celery, almond butter, and raisins
  • Veggie plate, focusing on colors and textures your child is receptive to — serve with hummus, guacamole, etc.
  • Homemade granola bars (for picky eaters)
  • Egg muffins made with veggies (once again, consider your child’s preferences)
  • Roasted chickpeas for kids
  • Veggie chips with a homemade, kid-friendly salsa
  • Trail mix

Smoothies (here are some great recipes from the Autism Community in Action)

Additional Tips to Support Your Child’s Nutritional Needs

Woman prepping food with two girls with autism.

Take a proactive approach to pickiness

Kids are notoriously picky eaters, whether they have autism or not. However, as a parent of a child with autism, you know that your child’s experience at mealtime is much more than that. Smells, textures, tastes, and colors are some of the greatest barriers you likely face. To tackle this issue, try to connect your child to the foods they eat.

If your child is receptive, bring them to the supermarket with you to choose a new food. Together, you can research it to find out neat facts and then prepare it. If certain textures are an issue, try to remedy this during preparation. If your child won’t eat it once it’s been prepared, don’t stress or react negatively. By simply allowing your child to become more familiar with new foods, they are offered a low-pressure learning experience that may lead to greater flexibility at mealtime.

Make mealtimes more routine

For many children with autism, mealtime is challenging because there’s so much going on. The kitchen is busy, there are bright lights and varying sounds. All of these can act as stressors. That is why it’s important to make meals as routine and predictable as possible. Think about your unique child when planning a new routine, tending to their needs. For example, if your child struggles with bright lights, invest in light dimmers or eat dinner by candlelight (with adult supervision, of course).

Give your child choices that can be incorporated into your daily meal routine. For example, allow them to choose one of their favorite foods to include at every meal, even if it’s a condiment. Encourage your child to choose their designated seat at the table or if they want to, assign them a task that they complete every meal (i.e. place napkins on the table for all diners).

Work with a registered dietitian

When it comes to the nutritional needs of your child, why not work with a registered dietitian? This is particularly important if you plan on following a special diet for your child. They will work with you and your child to ensure all of their needs are being met, offering unique suggestions on how to best incorporate the most important macro and micronutrients into your child’s diet. You should also work alongside your child’s therapist to come up with ideas in terms of positive reinforcement for good eating habits.

Tips For Improving an Autism Diet

  • Make Recipes Together: The Autism Helper is a website which provides easy snack ideas along with visual supports for families to engage in making autism snacks together. By coming prepared and involving your child in the prep, it can make them more comfortable with the food they will be eating later. Also, don’t forget to let your child see you trying and enjoying the food! Check out these easy-to-follow recipes, such as summer and winter treats and snacks!
  • Take Small Steps: If you try and force your child to eat a new food, it will only escalate the battle. Be calm and take small steps. This can include having your child look at, smell, and even just lick foods before putting a whole bite in their mouth. The more familiar they are with the food, the more likely they are to try it- even if it takes a few times.
  • Offer Choices: You can help improve meal and snack times by giving your child some of the control over their food. Try taking them to the grocery store with you and letting them pick out some foods to try. Then do some research together at home to learn more about the food and decide how you would like to try and cook it. You may also want to offer choices to your child in certain food groups. For instance, if you would like your child to eat one serving of vegetables for a snack idea, give them three options and let them choose. 
  • Offer Positive Reinforcement: Alongside visual supports, parents may also consider behavioral principles such as positive reinforcement and shaping appropriate behaviors around meal and snack time. Setting meal time expectations and providing positive reinforcement when your child demonstrates appropriate behavior can help families get back on track with enjoying meal time. 

Healthy Snacks for Kids at the Pingree Center

Bananas and Peanut Butter as a Healthy Snack

At the Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning, we provide comprehensive treatment, education, and related services for children with autism and their families. Any of the snack ideas listed above are perfect to pack for your child for any of our programs. We also provide lunch and healthy snacks for kids with autism, which parents can easily find on our website. We pride ourselves on offering the best programs for children with autism of any age, and this includes providing nutritional and delicious food for your child. Contact us today to explore our different programs and find the right fit for your child!