Free Range Toddler Eating

For many kids on the spectrum, food and eating and nutrition can be a tricky thing to deal with. There is a wonderful post going around that explains why in an autistic child’s own words. Early Bird, our middle child deals with sensory issues and some food anxiety. When he was younger it was a constant battle but the past few years we stopped making it a battle and instead instituted a practice of mutual respect. We respect his right to say no to anything; he in turn has learned to respect our requests to touch/sniff/lick a new food. It’s clearly a sensory issue for him; he gladly chomps down home cooked escargot, but if his cereal gets too soggy he gags and almost throws up.

For Lady Bug, we’ve never made it a battle; we learned from Early Bird. But with her Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) on the other side of the scale with extreme sensory seeking, it’s a different thing. She craves hard/crunchy all day. I think she would be perfectly happy eating only popcorn and Jalapeno Cheetos all day. We make sure that she gets nutrients in her drinks. She drinks V8 fruit/veggie blends with a little added water or Carnation Breakfast powder in milk (purchased in bulk at Costco.) We’ve checked her blood with the pediatrician and discussed diet, and he’s happy with where she is/what she’s getting.

There are two things that we’ve done differently with her that I think have helped. The first thing is what I’ve been calling “Free Range Eating.” Lady Bug eats when she’s hungry, what she asks for, wherever she wants to. We have found that not forcing her to sit at the table and eat only certain foods at certain times has increased what and how much she will eat. She often just grazes through the day. Enough calories and nutrients are consumed, thanks to the few fortified foods she eats, so there’s no problem there. Lady Bug has not yet mastered the use of utensils or open cups, so finger foods and sippy cups do help make this work for us. When she asks for something, she usually gets it. We want to encourage her actually talking to us and communicating her needs. Her main requests are juice, popcorn, crackers (her word for Jalapeno Cheetos), eggs, candy (we buy Sour Patch candy for sensory OT), cookies (fortified hard/crunchy cookie look-alikes,) and sometimes pizza or cheese. And it’s where ever she wants. Sometimes that means eating outside, sometimes that means eating on the couch or the arm chair or at her Montessori table. Her preference for dry things and only able to eat things she can eat with her hands does help make clean up not the nightmare one might expect.

There are times of the day when what the rest of us are eating is offered to her. We used to do what we jokingly called “Encouraging the Food Thief.” See, at some point Lady Bug decided that we were trying way too hard to convince her to try a food. What was so wrong with it that we were trying to get rid of it? However the exact same food on someone else’ plate? That had to be the good stuff. A little hand grabbing food off our plates became very common place. And we were so thrilled that she was actually eating and trying something new that we let her. She would even occasionally let me put some in her mouth with a utensil. But load up your plate with enough for both of you, and she was totally on to you and didn’t want it. Pretty much you had to feed her without her realizing that you were okay with it. Soon she was taking over brother’s plates if they left the table with food still on them. I got wise and started making an extra plate that looked identical to the brothers’ plates; but at there spot at the table mind you. She would grab it and take off with it to the couch or where ever and I’d give the boy his actual meal. That worked really well and since then we’ve gotten her to eat the sort of thing I cook if it’s on one of “their” plates. I can even hand it to her now and she’ll take it and eat some of it. But for 9 months or more, those Food Thief moments were how she ate new food.

Lady Bug doesn’t eat with us at the table. She is 4 years old and still doesn’t use forks or spoons or open cups. We’re not even trying to teach her those at this point. But you know what she does do? She eats. She gets the nutrients she needs. She even tries new foods if she can “steal” it from you. And there’s no battle, no fight. Just shopping for things like popcorn shrimp and protein bars and V8 and trying all sorts of “breakfast cookies” sold to dieters with all the vitamins and minerals in them. That is what works for us.

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