Getting any child to eat healthy on a regular basis can be difficult for most parents. This task can be even more challenging when it comes to older children with special needs due to increased rigidity, sensory issues, behavioral issues, etc. I have worked with adults with developmental disabilities for many years and have seen too many cases of obesity, diabetes, and unhealthy lifestyles.
Often, these individuals have not been exposed to what “healthy” means and how to change their eating habits. Recently, I have been training staff on encouraging healthy eating with young adults and have seen many successful outcomes.
Here are five ways that you can help your older child with special needs begin eating and exploring healthy eating.
1. Better your own eating habits
One of the best ways to encourage your child to have a healthy diet is to model healthy eating yourself. If you are eating unhealthy on a daily basis, it will be hard to expect your child to want to eat differently. The next time you sit down with your child during a healthy meal, discuss each food and what nutrients it contains. An excellent book for younger children is by William Sears called, Eat Healthy Feel Great. This concept by William Sears can be easily modified for an older child or teenager.
For an older child and/or teenager, there is an excellent resource by Attainment Company called the Healthy Advocacy Curriculum. I have used this curriculum for training sessions with staff and in speech therapy to meet several goals related to language and literacy. There are many worksheets that be used for a variety of levels of literacy.
2. Team up with your child in the kitchen
Cooking is an excellent skill because it helps build language and increase independence. There are tons of language concepts to target when cooking such as sequencing, following directions, improving literacy and expanding vocabulary to name a few. By getting your child to cook with you, they can add their own touches to their food which increases their likelihood of eating it.
When roasting vegetables (one tasty way to explore vegetables), ask your child to add their own touch by adding some shredded or grated cheese. This will not only add flavor, but your child will feel that they contributed their own flavors to the dish.
You can also get some ideas for visual recipes.
3. Play ready-made games
I found an excellent game by Learning Resources called Healthy Helpings: A Myplate Game. This game is simple, easy to play and functional. The game only contains print and photographs which makes it appropriate for older children.
Learning Resources makes several other games that can be appropriate for different ages and cognitive levels. Additionally, you could also check out the Choose My Plate website. This website gives you tons of information on nutrition and resources for healthy eating.
4. Create your own games
I have created my own games using Boardmaker and other software programs such as ConnectAbility. Encourage your child to explore the pictures and use the boards for a Bingo Game, Memory Game or a matching activity. If you do not have Boardmaker, you can use their free one month trial and be able to create and print your own boards. This will also give you access to Boardmaker Share which has access to tons of boards.
5. Explore your healthy choices
Does your child have sensory issues related to food? Engage in some sensory exploration exercises! Put one or several healthy foods on the table. Get your child to touch, look, and smell the new food. Encourage commenting by modeling the language yourself. For example, when exploring broccoli, you can say, “The broccoli looks like trees and is green. The florets feel rough, and the stalks feel smooth”. Melanie Potock wrote an excellent article about exploring new foods.