Favorite Foods for Picky Eaters
Here, we present simple gluten-free, casein-free recipes—including such favorites as mac and cheese and chicken nuggets—for your child with autism.
[Updated Aug. 12, 2015]
Many small children are fussy eaters but youngsters on the autistic spectrum commonly take pickiness to extremes. They often eat fewer than five or so different foods—a list that generally includes chicken nuggets, fries, mac and cheese, and cookies and milk. Most of their favorite foods contain gluten, casein, or both.
Proponents of the "opioid excess theory of autism" contend that these children limit themselves to foods that contain gluten and casein because these proteins give them a “high” resembling that of opioid drugs.
The gluten-free, casein-free diet (GFCF diet) is gaining ground as effective therapeutic intervention for autistic disorders. It’s supported by several peer-reviewed studies, thousands of documented case studies and a number of new, well-funded research projects. By now, most parents have heard of the benefits of the GFCF diet but many feel that their picky offspring would surely starve if they go that route.
Why are so many children on the autistic spectrum picky eaters? They often have severe sensory disturbances, which impact the way they experience food. These youngsters may make food choices based on a single characteristic. If their tactile sense is overly sensitive, foods of particular textures or temperatures are intolerable. If olfaction is overly acute, ordinary cooking smells may seem disgusting. An insensitive nose may mean that food simply is not appetizing.
Appearance of food is critical for some children; it can taste awful but if the food looks right, these kids will eat it. For other children, the problem is the need for “sameness,” which causes them to eat only a few, familiar foods. Figuring out which food trait is limiting your child’s diet provides insight into ways to expand the menu.
Removing gluten and casein nearly always leads to improved health, as well as a spontaneous broadening of the diet. It can take weeks (even longer for older children) but once the offending proteins clear the system completely, most kids will try new foods and add many to their diet. Most parents who’ve been through this agree that it’s well worth the effort.
These recipes recreate kid-favorite items that are nutritious and look, taste, and feel the familiar way your picky eater expects—but without the gluten and casein. Chances are you and the rest of your family will love them, too.
Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Mock Mac and Cheese
SERVES 4 TO 6
Most kids love macaroni and cheese. Now with the great dairy-free cheese substitutes and gluten-free pastas on the market, it’s easily do-able and tasty, too. If desired, top before baking with crumbled potato chips, extra grated dairy-free cheese or gluten-free breading mix (into which a little melted dairy-free margarine has been added). The white sauce (béchamel) used in this recipe can also serve as the base for any creamed casserole or soup.
2 tablespoons dairy-free margarine
2 tablespoons sweet rice ﬂour
1 cup plain, unsweetened dairy-free milk of choice
8 ounces cheddar-style dairy-free cheese
8 ounces gluten-free macaroni
1 onion, diced
2–3 dashes gluten-free Worcestershire sauce, optional
-Salt and pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon dairy-free margarine, optional
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a small ovenproof casserole dish.
2. Make a white sauce, by melting 2 tablespoons margarine in a small saucepan. Add ﬂour and blend into a paste. Add milk very gradually, stirring constantly. Continue stirring and cook over medium heat until the sauce is smooth and thickened. Add dairy-free cheese and stir until it melts and ingredients are combined. Set aside.
3. Cook macaroni al dente in a pot of water, according to package directions. Drain, rinse and drain again.
4. Place cooked noodles in prepared casserole dish. Gently stir onion, Worcestershire sauce and white sauce into the noodles. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Mix well. Dot with margarine, if desired.
5. Place dish in preheated oven and bake for 20 to 30 minutes.
Each serving contains 292 calories, 13g total fat, 2g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 0mg cholesterol, 311mg sodium, 38g carbohydrate, 3g fiber, 5g protein.
Gluten-Free Chicken Nuggets
An excellent source of protein, chicken can be made into finger foods that appeal to kids. These nuggets are not from you-know-where but your child should love them. They freeze and reheat beautifully—so make a lot! Serve with your child’s favorite dipping sauce.
8 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 tablespoons water
-Gluten-free bread crumbs (2 slices gluten-free bread)
-Salt and pepper, to taste
-Garlic powder and onion powder, optional, to taste
2-3 tablespoons canola oil or coconut oil, for frying
1. Slice chicken into strips. Then cut them into bite-size chunks.
2. Beat egg lightly with water and pour into a shallow dish or pie plate.
3. In another shallow dish, season bread crumb mix with spices.
4. Dip chicken pieces ﬁrst into the egg mixture. Then roll each piece in the breading to coat well.
5. Fry chicken in very hot oil, about ½-inch deep, until golden brown on all sides. Drain well on paper towel-lined plates. Serve warm.
Each serving contains 420 calories, 19g total fat, 2g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 176mg cholesterol, 251mg sodium, 30g carbohydrate, 1g fiber, 31g protein.
*For Egg-Free Nuggets, mix 4 tablespoons flax meal with 5 to 6 tablespoons hot water. Add more hot water 1 teaspoon at a time if too thick. (Keep it thick and sticky.) Dip chicken in mixture and then roll in bread crumbs.
TIP Instead of bread crumbs, process gluten-free crispy rice crackers or cereal in the blender into crumbs and stir in some sulﬁte-free, gluten-free mashed potato ﬂakes. Season with salt, pepper and any spices you like.
Gluten-Free “Fried” Drumsticks
Most children enjoy picking up drumsticks and eating with their ﬁngers. This version is low in fat, since it’s not fried.
3 pounds chicken drumsticks
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground paprika
½ cup gluten-free cracker crumbs or ground nuts, if tolerated
2 tablespoons water
1. Preheat oven to 425°F. Line a cookie sheet with foil and lightly spray with cooking oil.
2. Remove skin from drumsticks.
3. Add spices to crumbs and place in a shallow dish or pie plate.
4. Beat egg lightly with water and pour into a second shallow dish or pie plate.
5. Dip drumsticks ﬁrst in the egg mixture. Then roll in crumbs to coat thoroughly. Arrange coated drumsticks on prepared cookie sheet.
5. Place in preheated oven and bake about 45 minutes or until done.
Each serving contains 600 calories, 31g total fat, 8g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 325mg cholesterol, 925mg sodium, 7g carbohydrate, 1g fiber, 37g protein.
*For Egg-Free “Fried” Drumsticks, mix 4 tablespoons flax meal with 5 to 6 tablespoons hot water. Add more hot water 1 tablespoon at a time if too thick. (Keep it thick and sticky.) Dip drumsticks in mixture and then roll in cracker crumbs.
Butternut Squash Fries
SERVES 4 TO 6
This recipe is super-easy to make—the hardest part is peeling the squash! Technically, these aren’t fries because they’re baked in the oven. However, they’re just as delicious and better for you, a good source of healthy vitamins.
1 medium butternut squash
1. Preheat oven to 425° F. Very lightly coat a baking sheet with olive oil.
2. Peel squash with a good vegetable peeler or a very sharp knife. Cut it in half. Scoop out and discard the seeds and stringy bits.
3. Cut squash into “fry” shapes, either strips or chips. Place pieces on prepared baking sheet. Lightly brush or spray with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.
4. Place in preheated oven and bake about 40 minutes, depending on size of pieces. Watch closely and turn fries over after about 20 minutes. When fries crisp up and start to brown, they are done.
Each serving contains 53 calories, 3g total fat, 0g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 0mg cholesterol, 590mg sodium, 7g carbohydrate, 2g fiber, 1g protein.
Dairy-Free Breakfast Cookies
MAKES 32 COOKIES
Don’t be put off by the long list of ingredients—these breakfast cookies are easy to make. Not too sweet and packed with calcium, protein, iron and essential fatty acids, they deliver a powerful nutritional punch. Maple syrup will make the cookie dough softer than dough made with honey.
8 tablespoons (1 stick) dairy-free shortening
½ cup pure maple syrup or honey
1 egg or 1 tablespoon arrowroot mixed with 1 tablespoon cold water
½ cup + 2 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon ground flax seeds + 2 tablespoons hot water (mix and let rest 5 minutes)
1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup gluten-free high-protein ﬂour blend of choice (page 78)
1 cup gluten-free oats or quinoa flakes
⅓ cup dairy-free milk powder of choice
⅓ cup rice bran
1 tablespoon calcium powder* or flour of choice or almond flour (if tolerated)
1½ teaspoons xanthan gum or guar gum
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup raisins or chopped dried fruit of choice
⅓ cup sunflower seeds or chopped pecans (if tolerated)
¼ cup unsweetened coconut ﬂakes
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease 2 cookie sheets.
2. In a large bowl, cream together shortening and maple syrup. Beat in egg. Add juice, flax meal and water, and vanilla.
3. Add flour blend, oats, milk powder, rice bran, calcium powder, xanthan gum, baking powder and salt. Mix well.
4. Stir in raisins, seeds and coconut.
5. Drop cookies 2 inches apart on prepared cookie sheets. These cookies don’t melt, so shape and flatten them about ¼-inch thick and 2 inches in diameter.
6. Place in preheated oven and bake 12 to 15 minutes or until bottom turns golden brown.
Each cookie contains 125 calories, 5g total fat, 2g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 7mg cholesterol, 83mg sodium, 20g carbohydrate, 1g fiber, 2g protein.
*TIP: Calcium powder is a good way to boost calcium content for children who eat dairy free. You can sneak it into recipes without anyone noticing. It’s available at health food stores or from kirkmanlabs.com.
The mother of an adult child with autism, Lisa Lewis is cofounder of the Autism Network for Dietary Intervention (autismndi.com) and author of The Encyclopedia of Dietary Intervention. All recipes are reprinted with permission from her book Special Diets for Special Kids.