Junk Food Diet in Teens on the Autism Spectrum

"Any suggestions on what to do for a 13 year old teenager with ASD (high functioning) who is perfectly content to eat pizza rolls morning, noon and night - to the exclusion of most other foods? Very frustrating!"

When it comes to adolescents with ASD or High-Functioning Autism (HFA), appropriate diet and nutrition is a critical issue. Even slight worsening of moods, or additional absent-mindedness due to low blood sugar from skipping a meal, may cause these adolescents to fall into difficulties in important social situations. 
Once they have created a "social storm" (e.g., a rift with a classmate, an argument with an educator), these adolescents often have more trouble than “typical” adolescents navigating the troubled waters and reaching a safe shore.

In the United States, we often have too much food, and paradoxically, much of it is not healthy or nutritious. Many HFA adolescents complain about the food provided for them and may refuse to eat. Many don't eat well at prepared meals with their families, because they have a confusing array of other choices. 
They often do not view making daily decisions about what is - and is not - nutritious as their job. That’s where wise parents come in. Parents should guide their HFA adolescents to eat wisely by providing nutritious food, and by limiting the supply of non-nutritious foods available.

At the same time, eating together is one of the most affirming and basic family-building activities possible. It also links us to other human beings in our own community and other communities. It’s one activity that we all have in common, no matter what culture we are from. Our first job as parents, therefore, is to return a sense of pleasure to family mealtimes, and to eating in general, if it isn't already there. 
Our second job is to plan for food that is appropriately nutritious, even planning some meals with our adolescents. Our third job is to prepare the food with a calm attitude and with thoughtful attention to the needs of our adolescents, whether it be for portable meals, late-night snacks, or a constant supply of pocket-sized nutritious energy-boosters.

Here are several ways to keep positive attitudes about food in your home:
  1. Try music and candlelight for a change. Ask your adolescent to choose some quiet music that he or she especially likes.
  2. Start each meal together, at the table, and wait for everyone to be there. It helps to share a moment of silent appreciation, a chosen quote, or a prayer if you are so inclined. Let all family members take turns choosing the opening.
  3. Offer only nutritious foods at mealtimes. Try to buy as many fresh foods as possible, and use color contrasts to make the meal appeal to the artist in your HFA teen.
  4. Get family members to take turns helping to set the table creatively with attractive – even unusual – centerpieces or decorations. Some of these may even help generate conversation with ordinarily quiet, self-absorbed adolescents.
  5. Don’t make meal times a time to criticize or moralize. Try to open the conversation to everyone, and avoid topics that exclude some family members, or are boring for kids or teens. 
  6. Ask family members what their favorite dinners are, and either prepare those meals yourself, or allow them to prepare those meals once a week.
Planning and preparation:

Turning your kitchen into a generator of good nutrition and better eating habits may feel like a monumental task, but it is entirely manageable if broken down into tasks that only take an hour or less.
  1. Based on your family's list of favorite meals, and the cook's preferences, create a new grocery list featuring fresh foods and non-sugar foods for the main meals.
  2. Go through the refrigerator and the pantry shelves and gradually reduce and eliminate unhealthy foods. These include those foods whose primary ingredient is sugar (i.e., the first ingredient on the label), and foods with artificial ingredients, including preservatives and artificial coloring. Get rid of all soft drinks. Extra salty or fatty foods should also be limited (although these are more problematic for adults; adolescents can handle some salty, fatty foods because of their higher activity levels). Then don't buy unhealthy foods anymore. If anyone asks, you can tell them you can't afford them. Having to buy these foods themselves will immediately reduce your adolescents' (and other family members') need for them.
  3. Rotate cooking duties. Cooking is a practical skill and art form that all adolescents should master early in life. An adolescent with HFA may especially appreciate feeling self-confident serving tasty food he or she has prepared to friends and family.
  4. Continue to provide some snack foods, portable foods, and quick meals. These in-between food sources are often the culprits in poor nutrition and diet. Thus, it is crucial to look closely at ingredients, and change the foods that are available whenever you determine that the current offerings are unhealthy. Make sure that you provide a continual supply of a variety of these meal alternatives, or your adolescent will resort to relying on vending machines and friends.
  5. See how many canned or already prepared foods you can replace with fresh foods. These foods are often a hidden source of unwanted sugars, preservatives, and other chemical additives that can actually damage your family's health. Try the local health food store for spaghetti sauce and other sauces and dressings free of chemistry experiments; farmer's markets often have homemade jams, hot sauces, pesto, flavored honey, herb vinegars and other specialties. Check the local bakeries for bread; often bakeries sell their day-old bread at a significant discount - and it is still a lot fresher than what you will find at the grocery store!
  6. Pay special attention to breakfast foods. You may have to woo your adolescent to the breakfast table, but it is worth the effort. Breakfast is still the most important meal of the day for regulating energy levels, brain power, and moods.
  7. Preparing food should be a happy, not a harried, activity. Have a rule in your house that the cook gets to choose the music or radio program while preparing meals, and others are in the kitchen at the same time only if they are contributing to a positive atmosphere.
  8. Whoever does the majority of the cooking in the family should consider what foods he or she enjoys the most, and should check out a few cookbooks featuring their favorite foods from the library. A happy and inspired cook makes good food. Inspiring food makes better mealtimes and better nutrition possible.

Examples of healthy snack foods:
  • apples and peanut butter
  • carrots, celery, cherry tomatoes
  • cheese and wholegrain crackers
  • granola or homemade granola bars
  • peanuts and raisins, or other fruit/nut mixes
  • quick breads and muffins made from scratch
  • whole yogurt with fresh fruit and honey
  • yogurt and fruit "smoothies" made in the blender

Easy recipes:

Portable foods need to be hard, or in a hard container, so that they are not squashed and unappetizing by the time your AS or HFA adolescent gets around to remembering to eat them. Apples and granola bars are a good start. Consider getting some beef, elk, venison or bison jerky from a place that makes their own jerky (more farmers and ranchers are starting to offer these products for sale). 
Also, find a favorite cookie recipe. Using whatever basic chocolate chip cookie recipe your family prefers, cut the sugar by one-quarter cup, and substitute one-half cup quick oats for one-half cup of the flour required. Add chopped nuts, and even coconut flakes, if you prefer. Use real butter rather than margarine. Making a variation of these cookies each week, and filling the cookie jar will provide a more nutritious treat than store-bought cookies.

Quick meals should be meals that adolescents can cook for themselves in the afternoon after school, or late at night when returning from an evening out, or if they are up late studying. Provide instruction in how to prepare basic pasta, and then make sure that a variety of interesting pasta shapes and sauces are readily available and that your adolescent knows how to find the necessary ingredients and pots and pans by him or herself. Egg-based meals are another example. 
Make sure that your adolescent knows how to prepare basic scrambled eggs, omelets, fried or poached eggs, hard-boiled eggs, and French toast. With just these two basic food sources in his or her cooking repertoire, your HFA adolescent can create a dozen different healthy meals.

Rather than using direct praise for positive changes in your adolescent's eating habits (which may feel too intrusive or excessive for what he or she will rightly regard as a very basic part of life), ask your adolescent to cook for the family. Saying something like, “You prepare such good food these days; could I get you to cook for everyone once this week or next week?” will make your adolescent feel both self-confident, and needed. For an HFA adolescent, these are the marks of growing into adulthood and family membership as the contributing adult that he or she wants to be, deep down.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD

Great COMMENTS from Parents:

•    Anonymous said... 9 year old only eats bean burritos, and top ramin.
•    Anonymous said... Can you and her cook some. Wholemeal bases. Goats cheese, different vegetables, etc etc. i do with my boy and he eats them cuz we made them do they must be better.
•    Anonymous said... cheese pizza, grilled cheese, chips-and cutting back on his amounts. Also pop tarts, waffles, beef sticks.
•    Anonymous said... Corny dogs and ketchup, peanut butter and jelly, and spagetti. I can't get my 7yr old aspie boy to eat anything else.
•    Anonymous said... Food allergy testing might reveal some surprises. Dairy and wheat are very common allergens and worsen some ADD/ Aspergers symptoms. Take it or leave it... if you test, only do the IGG blood test which picks up all the sensitivities.
•    Anonymous said... I have same issues with my 13 yr old son, left to his own devices, he forgets to even eat. Only time I get vegetables in him is at dinner, and that can sometimes be a struggle. He would live on sausage rolls and chicken savory bites if we let him. He will not try new foods, and only eats plain foods. I also find it frustrateing, but feel lucky that I can get veg into his main evening meal, but even that he will not eat with sauce or gravy, it all has to be plain.
•    Anonymous said... I really don't have that issue with my daughter.We just started out as a baby you eat what you get.And if I think issues will arise,I give a choice of two items.But she has a tendency to love the good stuff like steamed cabbage,Brussels sprouts and does not like alot of junk food.Would not eat Cheerios,cookies,and stuff like that as a baby.
•    Anonymous said... It's pretty standard now to remove gluten and dairy from anyone's diet who has autism. We took my son of it (now 11) 2 years ago and almost immediately his meltdowns reduced by 70%, his functioning increased shockingly and now he tries all sorts of foods. Gluten and dairy are addictive to those with autism and effects every area of their development.
•    Anonymous said... My daughter eats the same thing everyday for breakfast and lunch...I ask her doesn't she get tired of the same old thing and she says no..As long as she is eating and happy it's fine with me She is 11 and her lunch everyday is a peanut butter and banana sandwich,her favorite snack an apple.
•    Anonymous said... My guy seems to have a different 'preferred food' every week or 10 days or so. They rotate, but generally it's pizza or pasta or indian food or ethiopian food or salad with feta cheese and olives. Period. Nothing else. Which ever preferred food it is that day is all he'll eat all day, for days. And I never know when it's going to switch, or to what, so I often find I'm not prepared for the switch and melt down ensues. I don't have any answers. Luckily my guy isn't a huge processed food kind of guy. But I have learned that once I introduce a food it may, or may not, end up on his preferred foods list. So if I don't want him eating pizza pops all day for days on end, I need to never introduce pizza pops. Not once. That happened with us with frozen pizza. Always made my own until one day broke down and bought a frozen one because too tired to make one and now he 'prefers' frozen and expects frozen every day all day when it's his preferred food. I've had to try all sorts of tricks to try to get him to revert back to homemade pizza and we've had many meltdowns. Lesson learned. Never never never introduce a food I don't want him living off of.
•    Anonymous said... My son is 10 and also eats micro pizza or pasta with pesto for virtually every meal. I just try to make sure he is eating fruit etc for snacks so that he is getting some nutrition.
•    Anonymous said... my son is 21 with aspergers and thats all he eats
•    Anonymous said... My son is the same way, he has a limited amount of foods he eats and when he is stuck on one thing right now pizza bagels he wants them morning noon and night! Then he will get tired after a while and move to something else like Mac and cheese etc etc
•    Anonymous said... my son only eats a few items of food worries me but he wont try anything else
•    Anonymous said... Oh I can so relate! My son is 10 and between cereal and frozen chicken patties and the occasional ravioli he will not try anything new. No fruit no veggies. He will throw up if he doesn't want it. Only kid I know who won't even eat French fries.
•    Anonymous said... Oh my, I just wrote a blog post about this very thing! LOL - not the pizza rolls, but a preteen with ASD & eating issues
•    Anonymous said... sorry to laugh , but my son just got home and asked me for pizza rolls..
•    Anonymous said... We have rules with food in our home. You eat what we're all having for our meals. I let the kids vote on the menu every week and that makes things easier. I have two aspies and an aspie husband. It works very well for our family. My oldest is 12 and she's a proud aspie. She's usually the one begging for cabbage, brussel sprouts, steamed carrots, etc.

•    Anonymous said... It's simple, you stop buying them and explain why. Eventually they will accept something else, going hungry for a few days won't kill most kids.
•    Anonymous said... My 10yo dd strongly refuses new foods but we have a house rule "everyone must, a least, try one bite of everything served each meal." Usually she says she likes it but most of the time will not voluntarily eat it again.
•    Anonymous said... My kid can go hungry for a LOOOOONG time. Its never "simple" like denying them what they will eat (as opposed to what they should).
•    Anonymous said... My son is 19 and he eats the same foods over and over. He does however try new things as long as they do not contain the foods he despises like "cheese and creamy substances". I find it odd that he will eat pizza with cheese....
•    Anonymous said... Sometimes it can be a sensory thing. Once we got meds for one of the kids, his appetite changed.
•    Anonymous said... Vitiams help to supplement nutrition that the child is not getting. It is not the answer but will help. Goodluck.
•    Anonymous said... What if you don't buy pizza rolls?

*   Anonymous said... Don't give up, but do give in and adapt when you need to. It's best to make it a secret give in! When you realize it's a losing battle, fight the same cause for the rest of the day and change strategy the next day so they don't see that they directly effected your decisions. Keep encouraging better eating, try to have very short little grocery shopping trips with just that child where they pick the food, get the pizza rolls "if" they can pick something healthy to try too. Make it fun and buy the milk and bread alone later. That's all the power you have. Withholding food is a terrible idea, my son will not eat until he gets the opportunity to eat what he likes. In my experience these kids don't "get hungry" like most people. If you are blessed with a oppositional child you can use that to your advantage. I have recently had great success with telling my oppositional 12 year old the truth about the fact that these companies make these foods to taste good to trick us into paying high prices for cheap junk. Then get a few similar recipes to try at home, and at least you know what's in them. Finger foods are the only thing my guy eats, using utensils and saucey stuff is a sensory no-no and only endured when absolutely necessary = for poutine! And, if it's anything like my experience, it's a phase and soon pizza rolls will be the last thing your kid wants. It's hard to not feel like a bad mom when our kids don't eat a well balanced diet. You will see there are these high achieving parents out there that want us to think they have it all together but they don't or they were just lucky that their kid's a good eater. I know I am really making a difference for my son and he will be my greatest accomplishment. My neuro typical daughter could be raised by dogs and adapt well, I will get very little credit for the awesome woman she will be.

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