Autism and Comfort Foods

Perhaps one of the more commonly known Autistic traits is being a “fussy eater”. 

As an autistic person, maybe you don’t want your foods to touch, or you can’t cope with strong flavours. Perhaps you’ve been told to stop eating with your eyes, or you’ve been forced to try something new. I’ve often explained my eating habits by telling people “I don’t like mixing my wets and my drys” (aka a dry food should never touch a sauce unless I decide I want them mixed that way). 

New foods can be scary, especially food that we may not recognise. Trying something new isn’t always as easy as it sounds, especially for autistic people who may struggle in particular with new and unusual flavours and/ or textures. I find myself particularly susceptible to the smell of foods over taste, and would often decide what I will and won’t try based on smell alone. 

Plus, there are also external factors that aren’t the food itself that can add to the stress of mealtimes. The sounds of eating, such as people chewing and cutlery scraping against plates, plus the social expectations if you’re at a sit down meal can further reinforce our food limits. 

These elements can go beyond unfamiliar and into overwhelming, and autistic people may experience sensory overload with new foods.

The barriers of being an autistic “fussy eater”

In my primary school canteen the table on the far left was known simply as “the fussy table”, and everyone knew that to be sent to the fussy table was the ultimate humiliation. When I was eight I firmly told the dinner lady that I didn’t want to eat the curry they had served, and in response I was force fed a spoonful which resulted in me boycotting curry for an entire decade. The worst part was that I was sent to the fussy table. But what the dinner ladies had failed to mention, however, is that the fussy table was served pizza for lunch every day. Go figure.

Building a stigma around the “fussy table” built up social pressure in the school for children to be pushed outside their comfort zones with food. Everyone was expected to eat what was put in front of them, and to say no was to misbehave. Rather than fostering a culture of exploration, the school used food as a measure of discipline, building negative associations for me and many other children who were labelled fussy eaters.

However, being a fussy eater is complicated. You don’t know if a restaurant will serve food that you like, and any foods you do like may come smothered in a sauce that renders it inedible. You feel awkward and difficult making special requests to service staff, without something like an allergy which may serve to “justify” your request.

This fear of food can make any meal stressful. It can affect holidays, events and special occasions. It may play on your mind from the moment someone suggests going out to eat. Whilst these barriers may not be insurmountable for an autistic person, they can be stressful and upsetting.

Step by step plan to try new foods as an autistic “fussy eater”

Below is a small step by step guide that may be helpful for an autistic person wanting to try new foods. 

It’s important to remember that every autistic person is different, and what’s worked for me as someone who is autistic may not work for another person who is also autistic.

Step 1: Understand your current food boundaries

Knowing your boundaries when it comes to foods is not a negative thing, nor should it be portrayed as one. Having comfort foods, preferences for a certain type of food, and knowing what you are and aren’t willing to try is perfectly acceptable.

Before you start trying new foods, it’s helpful to work on identifying your needs, boundaries, and comfort foods. These can be statements like “I will not eat dry foods and wet foods mixed”, “I hate eating things with a thick texture”, or “I absolutely love chicken nuggets and will always eat them”. 

Having these boundaries cemented means; 

  1. You can be certain where you are starting out from, identify any progress you make, and celebrate it. You will be able to look back at yourself only eating plain pasta, and be proud as you happily chow down on mac and cheese. 
  2. Allows you to communicate your boundaries to others. It’s much easier to test your boundaries and try new foods if others are aware of them, and can support you as you try new foods outside of your comfort zone. 
  3. You have a known safety net you can rely on. For example, say chips are one of your safety foods, and you go out for a meal and order a burger and chips. The burger has a sauce that you weren’t expecting and can’t manage to eat. But thankfully, you know chips are your comfort food, and you can just have the chips to eat instead. 

Step 2: Identify what food growth you’d like to make

Some autistic people only eat plain pasta… and they’re absolutely fine with that. Whereas others want to be able to eat a few different pasta dishes, just in case they go out for a meal and plain pasta isn’t an option. 

It’s important to map out what growth you’d like to make as an autistic eater so you have a clear goal to reach. Try to make your goals small and reasonable so you’re not setting yourself up for failure, and make sure they’re goals that you as an autistic person want to achieve, rather than food goals that someone else or society is making you feel you should be achieving. 

Your goals could be as broad as trying everything at least once, or simply accepting small changes to dishes you are already comfortable with. 

Step 3: Try something new

Once you are aware of your current food boundaries and where you’d like to be heading with them, if you’re comfortable, you can start to try new things. 

Remember that “new” can mean a range of different things, such as;

  • A completely new dish
  • A new texture or flavour 
  • A new way of preparing a current comfort food, like pasta with sauce rather than plain 
  • Combining multiple textures or flavours in a way that’s new to you, like peanut butter and marmite on your toast together 

Don’t overload yourself; if you know you struggle with both textures and flavours, you can stick to a texture you know and are comfortable with, but try a new flavour (like a new ice cream flavour if you enjoy ice cream, for example). 

Tips to help you try new foods as an autistic person

Below are some tips to keep in mind as you start trying new foods as an autistic person;

Tip 1: Take small steps

Broadening your food horizons is a marathon, not a sprint, and small steps are not to be scoffed at. 

My comfort food growing up was plain pasta. I would only eat pasta with butter stirred in, never a pasta bake or pasta salad. However, my mother began by adding cheese. From there I discovered I was okay with Mac n Cheese, and then uni introduced a whole world of pasta sauces to me. I’m still not a big fan of bolognaise, but I love alfredo sauce. Through this granular exploration I was able to explore my love of pasta at my own pace. Sure, it felt embarrassing asking the University caterers for a plateful of plain spaghetti, but I was comfortable and that’s what matters.

There’s a large amount of growth between eating only plain pasta vs eating pasta with a range of different pasta sauces. But it was only because of the small steps that were taken over a long period that this became possible for me. 

Don’t overwhelm yourself; take small steps, in your own time. 

Tip 2: Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Whilst you’re the person trying the new foods, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help from those around you. 

You can ask a friend or relative to be your designated person to probe at restaurants if you’re not comfortable doing so; for example, discuss with restaurant staff if the burger you’re thinking of ordering is smothered in a sauce or if it comes on the side.  

If you’re eating out with friends and you don’t want to order something you may not like, see if they will give you a bite of their food. That way you can explore without the pressure of finishing a meal you may not like- and without going hungry!

Remember, whilst you may feel uncomfortable asking for their help, those around you should be supportive in your quest, and will hopefully also be there to celebrate any progress you make.

Tip 3: Consider your other autistic sensitivities

We often forget that there are other things around the food itself that can be an issue for autistic people. 

If you’re an autistic person wanting to try new foods, if you are able to, remember the other sensitivities you may have and control them if possible. 

For example;

  • If you find social expectations difficult, you can try new foods when you are alone so you don’t have to concentrate on masking. 
  • Consider your other senses; perhaps play music to drown out sounds that may bother you, or light a scented candle you like the smell of if you know certain food smells may be too overpowering for you.   

Tip 4: Consider there are external factors beyond your control

It’s important to consider that social and economic factors may affect your tastes, and your ability to branch out. 

It wasn’t until I was exposed to a multitude of foods from different cultures at University that my pallet began to truly expand. I was lucky enough to be in a position where this food was affordable and readily available to me. 

Not everyone has the opportunity to try new foods, and you should not put pressure on yourself if you are not able to try new foods due to factors that are beyond your control. 

Tip 5: Remember progress isn’t linear

As an autistic person, your needs change daily, depending on what’s going on around you. 

Keep this in mind as you try new foods; some days you’ll feel excited to try an unknown dish, whereas other times you’ll just manage a plate of chicken nuggets, and that’s totally okay. 

I can still look back and see obvious progress, as I know years ago I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near an unknown recipe! 

Executive dysfunction and autistic eating

Executive functioning refers to the mental processes that enable us to complete tasks, including planning, focusing attention, remembering, and juggling multiple tasks.

Autistic people may have debilitating issues with executive functioning, and whilst many of us can still plan and carry out complex tasks, it takes considerable effort. 

This can be evident when it comes to cooking as an autistic person; there are many stages involved in preparing a meal, from the initial stages of gathering the ingredients, then preparing the ingredients, to actually cooking the meal.  

Cooking new foods is an even bigger demand on our executive functioning skills, as it presents a lot of new steps that are considerably easier for a non-autistic person to conduct. We have to first find a new recipe, then purchase new ingredients we may not already have, and follow a process that is new to us to prepare and cook the food. 

Executive dysfunction tips for an autistic person wanting to cook new foods

If you struggle with executive functioning as an autistic person, but still want to try new foods, here are some tips you could try; 

  1. Spread the whole process out into smaller, more manageable steps. For example, you could do any prep of the ingredients (such as washing and cutting veg) the night before you’re cooking a new meal. 
  2. Assign demanding requirements to someone else. If you know you struggle with chopping vegetables as an autistic person, you could ask someone else to do this for you. 
  3. Look for small things that will add up to make your cooking process easier. If you know grating cheese will take a lot of the energy needed to cook a new pasta bake from you, conserve that energy by purchasing some pre-grated cheese instead. 
  4. Try a recipe you already know, but with a new or swapped ingredient. Often the process of following a whole new recipe can be difficult; you could try following a recipe you already know, but adding an extra new ingredient or swapping a current ingredient for a new one, as a way to try a new food. Like swapping spinach in a curry to chunks of celery. 

Conclusion on autistic comfort foods

Whilst there is nothing wrong with having autistic comfort foods, if you want to expand your tastes, remember it’s a gradual process. 

I would no longer consider myself a “fussy eater”, but it took years of trying new things, feeling awkward in restaurants and leaving food behind on my plate. There are still foods I dislike, but I find I can try new things easily. 

Be kind to yourself as you go through this process. I always listen to my body; sometimes I don’t want to try something new, and that’s okay. Remember that this is first and foremost about you and what you want to achieve as an autistic eater. 

And whilst I’m proud of how far I’ve come, I’ll never say no to a bowl of buttery pasta.

References and Resources related to Autism Comfort Foods