Making Food Fun: Helping Youth with Disabilities Eat Healthier

Food selectivity or picky eating can sometimes lead to inadequate nutrition in youth with disabilities (Cermak et al., 2013). According to Bandini et al (2010), it can be defined to “include food refusal, limited food repertoire, and high frequency single food intake.” Oftentimes youth will consume too many carbohydrates and not enough fruits and vegetables with these habits continuing into adulthood (Williams et. al, 2005). In order to address these concerns, techniques can be encouraged to help food selective eaters become more diverse in their eating habits. Studies have found that picky eaters can benefit from autonomy during mealtimes, interactions with others through modeling behavior, and knowledge of the importance of eating healthy (Walton et al, 2017).

This article will share some fun, innovative ways to address food selectivity but is not meant to combat any eating disorders, diagnose any nutritional deficiencies, or change habits overnight. Before embarking on a journey to introduce new food to persons with disabilities, consider the barriers individuals face, the current eating patterns, and understand that some behaviors are more than non-compliance to want to eat different foods. Barriers to eating new foods can be related to texture, taste, smell, color, or temperatures of foods (USF Center for Autism and Related Disorders: Please keep in mind that no two individuals are the same so be careful of generalizations but seek to work with each person as an individual.


  • Texture: is the feel, appearance, or consistency of a substance. Sometimes a resistance to a food may be the texture itself or if it is combined with food of a different texture, like in a casserole. When considering texture as a barrier, some helpful questions to ask include, what is the texture of the food on the plate? Are items of different textures grouped together or touching? Is the item cooked or raw? What textures does the individual already feel comfortable with?
  • Taste: is the sensation of flavor perceived in the mouth and throat on contact with a substance. When introducing new foods, think about what types of tastes are represented on the plate. Are there sweet, sour, bitter, or spicy? Each person has tastes they enjoy and dislike so it will take time to determine if it is the taste or another barrier that person has with that food. In addition, individuals can be super tasters (where every taste is more extreme) and minimal tasters (everything tastes bland, so a condiment is used to add flavor).
  • Smell: is the way people perceive an odor. Smell can be a major barrier to new foods. Fruits, vegetables, and meats can carry different smells on their own and when combined with other foods. These smells can influence an individual in its raw form, when it is cooked, and when it is near the nose. Often, persons will reject or accept a new food based on smell alone.
  • Color: the color of different foods can vary greatly. A positive or negative experience with a food of a certain color may result in a preconceived notion that all similarly colored foods will have the same taste, texture, or smell. While colorful foods may seem exciting to some, not everyone likes a carrot if it is purple instead of orange, since it represents something unfamiliar.
  • Temperature: is the degree of heat or cold that a food item is served. Temperature can change the taste of a food item and affect how an individual experiences that food. Additionally, temperature and cooking can alter the consistency of the food. Cooked carrots have a much different taste and texture than raw carrots.

After you have determined the barriers to new foods, there are techniques to introduce new foods.

  • Actively engage youth in the process of growing, preparing, and cooking food:

o Learn about food together: education can help bring the awareness of healthy eating in order to assist in making a behavior change.

o Shop for food together: being an active participant in cooking and preparing food from start to finish can assist in trying new foods. Shopping can be one at local farmer’s and food markets where there is less stimulation to make it a more pleasant experience.

o Grow your own food: nothing helps youth to try something new than to eat what they grew.

o Prepare and cook food together: just like gardening, youth are more apt to try what they cooked since they have some ownership invested.

o Search for and select recipes together: actively engage youth in the process.

  • Make it fun:

o Experiment with food: don’t be afraid to get messy, this can include using edible or non-edible food.

o Create food art: make food beautiful- instead of just making a sandwich, dress it up to make a funny face or some shape to encourage eating it a fun and active way.

o Hold your own food competitions at home: there are plenty of food contests to help come up with ideas or just going through your pantry to see what is available for fun.

  • Make if mindful:

o Practice mindful eating using a food senses chart and create a relaxed environment when eating. Check out other articles and webinars through our site for more ideas on mindful eating:

  • Don’t forget to document food progress and celebrate successes!

Tools to use for success include:

Some literature recommends hiding healthy ingredients in other foods youth like. While this may be useful in some circumstances and under the guidance of a professional, caution should be used with this technique. Hiding foods can lead to a lack of trust, even higher resistance to trying new foods, and lack of fundamental information about food consumption and health.

It is more important to be patient and accept that this is a slow process. It takes between 7 and 10 exposures for individuals to get used to a new food and this can be longer in persons with disabilities. Similarly, ages and stages matter when introducing new foods. A 5 year old and an 18 year old may have very different levels of receptiveness to the techniques above and will process the information you are providing differently. Do not be discouraged if progress is slow and remember that help is available. There are many local organizations out there to help for little to no cost, including your local university Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD), the Administration for Community Living (ACL,, and Incight ( Most of all: have fun and find ways to invoke behavior change. Patience is key, as it increases the number of opportunities and experiences.

Bandini, L. G., Anderson, S. E., Curtin, C., Cermak, S., Evans, E. W., Scampini, R., Maslin, M. & Must, A. (2010). Food selectivity in children with autism spectrum disorders and typically developing children. The Journal of Pediatrics, 157(2), 259-264.

Cermak, S. A., Curtin, C., & Bandini, L. G. (2010). Food selectivity and sensory sensitivity in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 110(2), 238–246.

Walton, K., Kuczynski, L., Haycraft, E., Breen, A., & Haines, J. (2017). Time to re-think picky eating? A relational approach to understanding picky eating. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 14(1), 62.

Williams, K. E., Gibbons, B. G., & Schreck, K. A. (2005). Comparing selective eaters with and without developmental disabilities. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 17(3), 299-309.


Vanessa Spero, Regional Specialized 4-H Youth Development Extension Agent, UF/IFAS Extension

Noelle N. Guay, 4-H Extension Agent, Palm Beach County, UF/IFAS Extension