“Autism Safe Foods: Foods for Sensory Sensitivity” was written by Kaitlyn Wilson and edited/reviewed by Rivah Goldstein, MScFN, RD and Jackie Silver, MHSc, RD.
Medical Disclaimer: The information in this article is meant for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be personalized medical or nutrition advice. For a plan tailored to your needs, please consult with a Registered Dietitian or qualified healthcare professional.
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Last updated: November 1, 2023
Autism safe foods: What is a safe food?
Think about the last time you had a long day and really craved a specific food. Why do you think you are craving this food? What seems safe or comforting about it?
Many of us love eating potato chips or chocolate after tiring days. When we open a bag of chips or a chocolate bar, we know what to expect every time. This brings a sense of comfort and safety.
Each person has different foods they gravitate towards when they are not feeling the greatest. A safe food is predictable, may be comforting to you, or ease anxiety. An autism safe food is one that does not trigger sensory sensitivities. Take a moment to reflect on what your go-to “safe foods” are!
I often hear clients tell me they are ashamed about their safe foods and they judge themselves for having “unhealthy safe foods”. I encourage you to practise self-compassion and remove judgement around your safe foods.
Safe foods can be an important component of our diet and there is nothing embarrassing about that!
How does eating your safe food make you feel? Some emotions that come to mind could be calm, relaxed, content, happy, or peaceful. If you’re autistic, your autism safe foods are important to fall back on when your world becomes overstimulating.
Why autism safe foods? Let’s talk about sensory sensitivities
For autistic folks specifically, it’s important to note that sensory sensitivities are common, and each autistic person may have a different sensory preference. Everyone has a different liking for the types of foods, textures, flavours, shapes, temperatures, brands, and food packaging they regularly choose!
A sensory sensitivity is a higher awareness of information from the five senses (touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight). One study found that over 90% of autistic children and adults have sensory sensitivities. Other words for sensory sensitivity that you may see used are “sensory defensiveness” or “sensory over-responsivity.”
Why do sensory sensitivities happen?
It’s not clear why sensory sensitivities happen. Likely, sensory sensitivities are due to the brain processing sensory information differently. Other factors could be difficulty with mouth movements such as chewing and swallowing, and gastrointestinal disorders.
How does sensory sensitivity affect food choices?
Sensory sensitivities can cause aversions to food, and make you less likely to try new foods. Also, sensory sensitivities make it more likely to eat a lot of a single food item, or have few acceptable food items. This behaviour is called food selectivity. As a result, you may rely on few autism safe foods.
Autism safe food: Sensory sensitivity considerations
There are some important considerations to note when it comes to sensory sensitivities. Sensory sensitivities can lead to not getting enough nutrition if your diet is too restricted. Luckily, there are strategies you can try to make sure your body is getting the nutrition it needs to thrive.
Continue reading for our best tips on how to build balanced meals and snacks with autism safe foods! Consider working with a registered dietitian who can help you make personalised meal adjustments to help you get enough nutrition, while still including your safe foods. Also, feel free to check out “The Ultimate Guide to Vitamins for Picky Eaters” after you read this article.
Why are autism safe foods reliable? Familiarity and routine for autism
One of the biggest reasons you may gravitate towards your autism safe foods is because you know they taste, feel, smell, and look the same every time. In other words, there are no surprises: you know that each bite will be the same as it was the last time!
Familiarity and routine have a role in alleviating stress in all aspects of daily life, especially for autism. Repetitive behaviours and rigid interests are core characteristics of autism. This means you may feel over-stimulated when things are outside of familiarity and routine.
Many autistic folks like routines because they offer predictability, a sense of control, reduce sensory overload, and foster comfort and familiarity. Autism safe foods offer just that! The importance of familiarity and routine means that it’s often important to introduce changes to routines in a gentle way.
Autism safe foods: Tips for making changes
At times, you might feel the need to switch up your routine, or a change is essential. There are strategies that can help make these adjustments easier. These tips (listed below) can help with many different aspects of your routine, including introducing new foods.
Tips to make changes in routines:
- 1. Prepare in advance. Plan your change in routine before you start. You can write out the change in your calendar, and research the change so you know what to expect. Try to make your change simple and easy to follow to keep you from becoming overwhelmed.
- 2. Gradual introduction. Whenever possible, make small changes over a few days rather than making one big change over a short period. This gradual and gentle adjustment may be easier to cope with compared to one big change all at once.
- 3. Positive reinforcement. Be positive about your efforts in starting a new change in your routine. Every small accomplishment in making a change in your routine is worth praising.
- 4. Be patient. It may take time to adjust to a new routine, and this is okay. Seeking support from others may help you feel less overwhelmed.
How do these strategies look in real life? An example of a change in routine related to autism safe food is going to a new restaurant that you’re unfamiliar with. This may feel scary or uncomfortable for an autistic person! You may feel anxious wondering if your safe foods will be available, or what the eating experience will be like in a different environment.
To prepare in advance, you can mark the visit in your calendar, and research the menu and seating layout of the restaurant by looking at pictures online. For a gradual introduction, you can try driving by the restaurant using the same route you will be taking on the day of the visit.
The menu will give you a choice, but you may decide to call the restaurant in advance to see if they can accommodate your sensory needs. Throughout the process, remember to be patient and positive about your changes, no matter how small they may seem!
In addition to tips for making changes to your routine, here are some strategies you can try when introducing new autism safe foods:
- Introduce new foods that are similar to your autism safe foods. For example, if you like broccoli, you can try to slowly introduce cauliflower. Both of these vegetables are similar in shape, size, and texture. Trying new foods that resemble the ones you’re familiar with can make the process more enjoyable.
- Present new foods alongside your autism safe food. It may be comforting to have your autism safe food nearby when you introduce a new food. Back to the broccoli example, you can try putting a piece of cauliflower (new food) on your plate next to the broccoli (autism safe food).
- Gradually introduce the food using your five senses. You can start introducing a new food by just placing it nearby so you can see it.
The next time, you may pick up the food with your hands (touch) or an eating utensil. The next time, you might smell the food. Then you might taste a small amount of the food. Go at your own pace.
- Eat with others who are supportive. Since it may be overwhelming to try new foods, it may be helpful to have a supportive friend or family member eating with you.
- Speak with a Registered Dietitian (RD). A registered dietitian who is familiar with autism and autism safe foods can help you try new foods. Registered dietitians are experts in evidence-based nutrition. Check out this blog post on the top 5 reasons you need an autism nutritionist.
Examples of autism safe foods
How to build balanced meals and snacks with autism safe foods
A good tool to keep in your tool belt is to prepare safe foods in advance. If this isn’t possible, it may be a good idea to organise your kitchen in a way that the ingredients are easy to find. That way, your safe foods are convenient for you when you need them.
Preparing food in advance can also help you plan a balanced diet. Did you know Canada’s Food Guide was recently updated in 2019? These new guidelines use something called the “plate method,” which recommends half of your plate to be vegetables, one quarter starches, one quarter a protein source, and to make water your drink of choice.
Feel free to use our graphic below as a guideline or template when planning your meals to ensure they’re balanced.
Eating a balanced meal is important, because it makes sure your body is getting all the nutrition it needs to thrive for the rest of your life.
When it comes to autism safe foods, there are creative strategies you can use to make your meals balanced, while still including your autism safe food.
A common tip I give to my autistic clients is to first decide which category of the balanced plate your autism safe food fits into. Ask yourself: Is my autism safe food a vegetable/fruit, whole grain food, or protein food?
Then, build around your autism safe food by adding other food groups to your meal until you have a balanced plate.
Creative ways to make autism safe foods more nutritious:
Here are some easy strategies you can use to make the foods you love more nutritious:
- Choose whole grains. Whole grains are typically more nutritious than refined grains. They contain more fibre, vitamins, and minerals. A simple switch to get more nutrition is to swap refined grains to whole grains. For example, you can use whole grain bread instead of white bread.
I know whole grains can be tough for many clients. For example, many clients tell me they can’t stand the texture of whole wheat pasta. I always tell them that is totally fine. We can still build balanced meals with white pasta or white rice by including vegetables and a protein. Vegetables have fibre too!
Check out this blog post on How to Choose Cereals With Fibre.
- Add protein powder. Most people think of protein powder added to smoothies, but did you know you can add it to so much more? Try adding protein powder to oatmeal, pudding, yogurt, soups, or mashed potatoes!
For more info on protein powder, check out this blog post: Vegan vs. Whey Protein Powder: Which One Should I Choose?
- Try new cooking methods. Cooking an item at home rather than purchasing a ready-made item allows you to have more control over what goes into your food.
You can cook your food tailored to your taste preferences while using ingredients that make your body feel good. For example, if you like chips you can try making crispy veggie chips in the air fryer.
Check out the recipe section of our blog for quick, easy, and nutritious recipes you can make at home.
Autism safe foods are those foods that make you feel comfortable and safe. They’re important because of sensory sensitivities or preferences, and for routine and familiarity.
A sensory sensitivity is a higher awareness of information from the five senses (touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight), and impacts how you eat. Repetitive behaviours and rigid interests are characteristics of autism. With this in mind, it’s valid to feel over-stimulated when things are outside of your familiarity and routine, including food.
The good news is that your autism safe food can definitely be a part of a balanced meal. There are great strategies that you can utilise to ease the anxiety or discomfort you may feel when making an adjustment to your routine, such as trying a new food. We hope this blog post gives you some inspiration to add that work with your autism safe foods while adding nutrition.
- The Ultimate Guide to Vitamins for Picky Eaters
- Top 5 Reasons You Need an Autism Nutritionist
- How to Choose Cereals With Fibre
- Vegan vs. Whey Protein Powder: Which One Should I Choose?
- Podcast Episode: Nutrition for ASD and/or ADHD with Jackie Silver, RD
Looking for a gift for yourself or a loved one this holiday season? Check these articles out:
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), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3601920/
Government of Canada. (2019). Canada’s food guide. Canada.ca. Retrieved Oct 30, 2023. https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/
Harvard T.H Chan: School of Public Health (April 2022). Whole Grains. The Nutrition Source. Retrieved October 30, 2023 from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/whole-grains/
Henderson, J.A. (2011). The relation among sleep, routines, and externalizing behavior in children with an autism spectrum disorder. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. 5(2) 758-767, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1750946710001340
Kroncke, K. (2023, September 19). What is Sensory Sensitivity in Childhood? Cadey. https://cadey.co/articles/sensory-sensitivity
Leekam, S., Nieto C., Libby, S.J., Wing, L., Gould, J. (2007). Describing the sensory abnormalities of children and adults with autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 37(5), 894-910 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17016677/
Levy, S.E., Mandell, D.S., Schultz, R.T. (2011). Autism. Lancet. 374(9701), 1627-1638. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19819542/
Marí-Bauset, S. M., Zazpe, I., Mari-Sanchis, A., Llopis-González, A., Morales-Suárez-Varela, M. (2014). Food Selectivity in Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Systematic Review. Journal of Child Neurology, 29(11), 1554-1561. https://doi.org/10.1177/0883073813498821
Naish, K.R., Harris, G. (2012). Food Intake Is Influenced by Sensory Sensitivity. PLOS ONE. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0043622
Nimbley, E., Golds, L., Sharpe, H., Gillespie-Smith, K., Duffy, F. (2022). Sensory processing and eating behaviours in autism: A systematic review. European eating disorders review : the journal of the Eating Disorders Association. 30(5), 538-559. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9545673/
Perrelli, A., Goitre, L., Salzano, A., Moglia, A., Scaloni, A., Francesco, R. (2018). Biological Activities, Health Benefits, and Therapeutic Properties of Avenanthramides: From Skin Protection to Prevention and Treatment of Cerebrovascular Disease. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6126071/
Whelan, C. (2020, April 30). Safefood: The Medicinal Properties of Chicken Nuggets. Autistics United Canada. https://www.autisticsunitedca.org/blog/safefood-the-medicinal-properties-of-chicken-nuggets
Zauderer, S. (2023, September 19). Autism Routines: Why Children With ASD Like Routines. Cross River Therapy. https://www.crossrivertherapy.com/autism/routines
Kaitlyn is studying an honours specialization in nutrition & dietetics (BScFN) and kinesiology (BA) at Brescia University College, affiliated with Western University. Her passion lies in promoting health and well-being through optimal nutrition and physical activity. Kaitlyn has a strong interest in nutrition communications, fostered through her position as the Executive of Communications at Western University’s on-campus food pantry and confidential hamper service. She has a strong dedication to staying up-to-date with evidence-based nutrition practices. Her personal interests include cooking, reading, crocheting, and going for outdoor walks!
Jackie is a Toronto-based Registered Dietitian whose mission is to empower and support the neurodivergent and physically disabled communities through nutrition. Jackie runs a virtual private practice and blog which has simple recipes and health information tailored to these communities. She loves cooking, exercising, traveling, journaling, and spending time with family and friends.
Hello! I’m Rivah, a registered dietitian passionate about helping teens and adults with neurodivergence and mental health conditions. Additionally, I support individuals with chronic disease management, plant-based diets, and mindful eating. My counseling approach is weight inclusive, client-centered, and evidence-based where we create realistic nutrition goals, prioritizing physical, mental, and emotional health. In my free time, I enjoy reading, cooking, and outdoor activities.