It can be challenging at mealtimes to get tamariki to eat, especially if there are sensory challenges. The main thing to remember is to create positive eating experiences, and where challenges do exist, tackle them one at a time.

Sensory challenges are different from being picky

Many neurodivergent tamariki can get overwhelmed by things related to their senses. They may have a dislike of certain foods because of the way they look or the way they feel in their mouth. Because of this, they may refuse certain foods, or get distressed.

They may also have trouble focusing or sitting still to eat, or find sitting at the table uncomfortable. It can help for whānau to focus more on the food and routine of eating and less on the behaviour.

The word “neurodivergent” refers to people whose brains work differently than what is considered “typical”. It includes autistic people.

Rule out any physical challenges first

Neurodivergent tamariki can have medical challenges that make eating unpleasant. These can include dental cavities, challenges with chewing, and acid reflux. Whānau should talk to their doctor first to rule out anything else that could be causing tricky behaviour at mealtimes. It can be useful to keep a food diary of what their tamaiti eats.

Stick to a routine

If mealtimes feel stressful for neurodivergent tamariki, it can help to spend a few minutes relaxing before it’s time to eat, and sticking to a set time so they know what’s coming.

Eating at the dinner table can help too, as it encourages good posture and signals to everyone that it’s time to eat and not do anything else. It’s also a chance to spend time together as whānau.

Tackle one thing at a time

If tamariki have trouble sitting still, but also won’t eat certain foods, choose one thing to focus on for that meal.

Neurodivergent tamariki can be easily overwhelmed with too many instructions, so whānau need to be realistic with their expectations. If the goal is to sit still for five minutes, then give the child lots of praise and let that be the focus – "It's lovely to be sitting at the table together for kai," "you're doing such a great job sitting at the table."

Some push-back and disruptive behaviour is to be expected – this doesn’t mean progress isn’t being made.

Give lots of encouragement

Whānau should praise achievements, no matter how small, and encourage their tamaiti to explore different foods gradually to create positive mealtime experiences.

Conversation ideas

What things do you enjoy about kai time?
What’s the thing you find most challenging around kai with your tamariki?
Where does the whānau usually eat kai?
Do you have a set time for mealtimes?
Are there foods your child really enjoys? Why do you think that is?
Does your tamaiti like to play with their kai?
What are some ways you can make mealtime relaxed?

Helpful resources for whānau