Autism and fussy eating: follow the beige diet for limited nutrition!

Meet the beige diet. A favourite of many children with autism. Its foods are generally limited in colour, texture and nutrition. This might be called autism and fussy eating, but fussy has nothing to do with sensory eating issues.

beige food diet
the beige diet and autism

Fussy eating from day dot?

Around 12 months of age, we booked our son into a day clinic. This was mostly for sleep reasons, but also for eating. He was happily breast fed but showed very little interest in solid foods. He didn’t eat apple puree, he didn’t eat baby food from pouches. Our son wasn’t interested in pureed pumpkin or rice porridge, and definitely not avocado. He went straight from breast milk to rice rusks and toast fingers with vegemite. Was something wrong because he wasn’t following the normal pattern for introducing foods to babies? And why was he only eating beige crunchy foods?

An aversion to fruits and vegetables?

My adult cousin claimed he was on a special diet – it didn’t include fruits or vegetables. Well, my son caught onto that and was only interested in grains, potato and beans (a.k.a. the beige diet). To this day, he remains suspicious of fruits and vegetables. Pity he couldn’t be suspicious of processed food and sugary treats instead.

Why isn’t it fussy eating?

cinnamon rolls - fussy eating says no
who would say no to homemade cinnamon rolls? my kids.

Other people claim we’re being soft parents and should force our children to eat everything on their plate and not leave the table until it’s all eaten. The Satter Method suggests that you shouldn’t force children to eat, as that will only led to children associating negative emotions and anxiety with the dinner table. Our son will gag if fed foods he finds texture-challenging, and both our children have an aversion to seeing and smelly foods they don’t like. A banana in any form is particularly disgusting to our daughter who cannot stand the smell or look of it. Our son can only eat coloured vegetables if he’s in the mood and if he holds his nose and closes his eyes and has someone put the spoon into his mouth for him. He also can’t look at the compost bin under the sink because it’s “full of gross foods”. And don’t bother trying to hide vegetables inside sauces – he can tell and it won’t get eaten! So for us, it’s not fussy eating, but autism related sensory issues around food.

The time and place matters

Of course, it’s not always a hard and fast rule. For a long time our daughter ate vegemite sandwiches at her grandma’s house, but wouldn’t touch them in our house. She’ll eat cabbage dumplings at a restaurant, but won’t touch them if we make them at home. She eats fruit and vegetables hidden in muffins, cupcakes and cookies that she makes with her Occupational Therapist, but won’t eat the foods at home when there’s leftovers. Then there’s also foods that were favoured that fall out of favour. She used to eat bread rolls for lunch but now doesn’t like them all. Time and place matters a lot for our kids with their contextual eating.

What to do about sensory issues and eating?

We certainly haven’t got anywhere near perfect eating habits, and eating out is a challenge (unless hot chips is considered a balanced meal). However, we’ve learnt from experience and working with our occupational therapist about sensory issues and fussy eating.

1. Shop and plan together

We go to the library and borrow recipe books with lots of pictures. During the holidays we’ll ask the kids to pick a couple of new recipes from the pictures that they’d be happy to try. Then we shop together and let them pick foods from the supermarket. I sometimes write the shopping list (if it’s a small shop) onto index cards. I then evenly hand out the cards to the kids and they are responsible for finding those items and putting it in the trolley. No promises that they’ll eat it, but it’s part of the sensory exposure.

2. Cook and grow food together

When there’s time, we cook together. The kids can pull the ingredients from the pantry or fridge and help cook. They also help plant seedlings and pick the vegetables and herbs growing in the garden. Thyme is the only herb our son eats, because he can pick it from the garden himself. Our daughter loves picking peas… it’s a work in progress to get her to eat them.

3. Parents provide, kids decide

Part of the Satter Method is to put out a selection of food on the table that children help themselves to. This helps expose children to foods and de-sensitise their sensory aversions to foods. Our meals are often deconstructed e.g. with pasta and sauce served out separately, or tacos served with all the salads and beans out on the table to choose from. Either way, we as parents decide what and when we eat, and the kids decide what they want to select from that to eat. We haven’t had success putting a bit of everything on the plate – the plate ends up tipped upside down on the table. Our kids would rather go hungry than have to look right at something they don’t like. So it’s a smorgasbord/deconstructed approach in the middle of the table instead for us. We’ve had some success getting the kids to select one vegetable, one grain and one protein from a selection and having that on their plate. Be prepared to serve out different things to each person. For a time though, our daughter would select chickpeas, rice and cauliflower which was a win for her and us.

4. Keep trying and hello multivitamin

Keep trying. Don’t give up. It’s not easy and try to ignore the judgy mcjudgy faces when you go out or when parents judge your beige lunchboxes. Just chuck a multi-vitamin your kids way and keep exposing them to new foods.

Other fun ways to try new foods

  • Get takeaway (don’t terrorise yourselves by eating in) from a new restaurant or outdoor festival. Have the kids order. This was how our daughter discovered cabbage dumplings, and our son discovered mac and cheese.
  • The ‘family restaurant’. Make a menu for dinner with a number of drink, entree and main options that you’re happy to pull together. Have the kids order what they want, practice waiting at the table for their food, and then eat what arrives.
  • “You get what you get and you don’t get upset” is our mantra for when the wrong thing ends up on the table.

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