6 Steps for Overcoming Picky Eating

Do you worry that your child’s picky eating habits will halt his or her recovery?

You may feel like you’re in a vicious cycle in which picky eating prevents your child from eating a healing diet, and the limitations of a healing diet might keep your child from eating.  Picky eating is one of the biggest obstacles autism recovery parents face.  The good news is that picky eating can be overcome.  Thousands of autism parents have done it, and you can too.

Following are 6-steps and 5 principles for overcoming picky eating adapted from Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride’s book, Gut and Psychology Syndrome.

Step 1:  Select a food or activity your child is crazy about.

Use an activity if you can.  However, a food will work fine too.  Activities might include a favorite DVD, toy or TV show.

If you’ll be using a food, the food you choose will be determined by where you are with diet now.  If you’re already gluten-free, you might choose that gluten-free treat that your child adores, e.g. GF cereal or GF cookies.  If your child is still eating non-gluten-free foods, pick his/her absolute favorite food.  (Non-verbal children tend to respond better to food rewards than toys.)

When you start, you will put away that food/toy and only offer it as a reward for trying a new food.  Do not offer that favorite food/toy in any other context.

 Step 2:  Select a new food you’d like your child to try

Choose a healing food you’d like for your child to try.  For example, you might try cooked carrots or grilled chicken with no breading.

 Step 3:  Set the stage

Set out a small amount of the desired food (a piece of biscuit, part of a cookie, a small handful of cereal) along with a few bites of carrots or other healing food.

 Step 3:  Offer the desired food only

Offer your child one mouthful of carrots (or whatever) with the favorite food in clear view but out of reach.  If you’re using non-food rewards such as a favorite toy, set it just out of reach on the table like you would with a food treat.  If it’s a DVD, you might boot it up on the TV in sight of the table or have the DVD case in sight.

Prepare yourself to ignore tantrums, screaming, crying.  Don’t let him/her have the treat until one bite of carrots has been eaten – or at least tasted.  Don’t let your child leave the table until the bite of carrot is eaten/tasted.

 Step 4:  Give the desired food and heap on praise

When the carrot or other healing food is eaten (or at least tasted), give your child the treat and lavish praise.  (Keep the reward food to 1 or 2 bites or the non-food reward short, e.g. 5 minutes of favorite movie.)  If your child asks for more of the treat, explain that he/she will need to eat another bite of the healing food and you will happily provide another bite of the treat/5 minutes of the movie or toy.

 Step 5:  Repeat the process

Let your child run and play for a while.  Then come back to the table.  Offer another bite of new food in exchange for the treat.  If your child begs for the treat, give him/her another bite of carrot or other new food before giving more of the treat.

Step 6:  Increase healthy foods required for the treat

In time (an hour, a day, a week, or even more) your child will become willing to eat a bite of the new food for the treat.  Then, increase the carrots to two bites for the same size of treat.  Gradually, increase the mouthfuls until your child is eating a full serving of carrots for the same small bite of treat.

Stick to only 1 new food in this process.  Stick to that food until it’s accepted, then move to the next food.  Before you know it, you’ll be introducing more and more foods, and your child’s diet will be much improved.

Don’t be disheartened by tantrums.  Remember that probably every parent who ever conquered picky eating had to go through tantrums and meltdowns too.


5 Key Principles for Overcoming Picky Eating:

 Stay positive – Keep a positive attitude and tone throughout the process.  Set your expectations low to keep your frustration down.

 Lavish praise – Not only will you be giving a treat when your child eats or even tastes the goal food, lavish him/her with praise too.

 Ignore tantrums — Prepare yourself for tantrums, so you can remain calm and ready to ignore any tantrums that come your way.

 Put treats away – Be sure to never give the treat (whether it’s food or a favorite activity such as a video) outside of the context of eating the healthy food.  Otherwise, your child will just wait for the next opportunity to get that treat and skip the opportunity when it’s attached to food.

One food at a time — Stick to only 1 new food in this process.  Stick to that food until it’s accepted, then move to the next food.  Before you know it, you’ll be introducing more and more foods, and your child’s diet will be much improved.

Diets like SCD and GAPS rebalance the gut flora that is contributing to picky eating.  Give a diet like SCD or GAPS a try and you’ll be amazed at the healthy foods your child will be enjoying before you know it because these diets starve the pathogenic bacteria that contribute to picky eating.

The great news is that by using this process, you’ll start reducing picky eating, and opening your child up to the kind of diet that will lead to dramatic breakthroughs in autism symptoms.

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