Getting Boo to eat is a struggle.
Correction: getting Boo to eat a halfway balanced, halfway healthy diet is a struggle.
Like many kids on the spectrum, foods are a huge issue for him. The problem seems to be largely a sensory issue. As a baby he would eat literally anything we put on a spoon. We made our own baby foods by steaming and pureeing whatever fruits and veggies were in season. He ate green beans, squash, avocado, pears, peaches, blueberries, cranberries, pumpkin, anything we could make smooth. But when the time came to transition to table food, he abruptly stopped eating. It has been a struggle ever since.
The foods that we do get him to eat have one thing in common. Consistency. As in, the food must be consistent throughout. Every bite having the same flavor and texture as the one before it and the one after it. For instance, he eats yogurt, but only flavors like orange, banana, key lime, and vanilla. If there are chunks of fruit in it, forget it! He likes various kinds of chips and crackers. He likes bread and toast, but only the "right kind, without seeds." (meaning NOT multi-grain) He likes a few kinds of cereals, and he likes milk, but you don't put the milk ON the cereal. For a long time the single source of meat in his diet was McDonald's chicken nuggets. No other kind would do. Thankfully we have recently discovered a love of Banquet brand popcorn chicken. He occasionally likes pizza, but only cheese pizza, and only from certain places. And if the sauce is visible? Forget about it!
I remember once a couple years ago at a church dinner I convinced him to try a baby carrot. At that time I still thought he was just being "picky" and that if I could just expose him to all the great flavors of foods I love, he would learn to love it too. I coaxed him into taking a bite with the promise of a piece of chocolate cake as a reward. He bravely bit off the carrot, chewed, and twisted up his little face as he tried to swallow. But he just couldn't get it past his gag reflex. The texture was too much for him to deal with. He threw up.
At any given time there are maybe 10-12 foods that Boo will eat, most of them not very healthy. Right now he is living on popcorn chicken, "stick pizza" (garlic cheese bread), toast, bacon, graham crackers, cheez-its, goldfish, lucky charms, fruit loops, fruit snacks, popcorn, and chocolate muffins. He will eat these same items, and only these items for MONTHS. Then suddenly he will seem to get tired of them. (who can blame him) He will refuse to eat the foods he loved just the day before, but it will take a couple weeks for him to find something he can put in its place. Those weeks are hell. When he is hungry, his behavior is horrid. But hunger does NOT drive him to eat if he doesn't have a food presented to him that he finds acceptable. Even before his diagnosis, when I would seek help for his "picky" eating habits, well meaning friends would give that sage advice "he won't starve." I wasn't so sure. I'm still not. I think if all he was ever offered to eat was vegetables, whole fruits, rice, and pork chops...he would starve himself. Seriously.
Our best defense in this struggle has been a sort of classification system for his foods. He is highly motivated by sweets. He loves chocolate (as long as it doesn't have something evil like nuts in it) and cake and ice cream and things like that. We try to limit these foods as much as we can. Early on, we began explaining the need for him to eat "healthy" foods in order to grow and be strong. He is not motivated by growing. He will tell you straight up that he prefers to remain a kid. And he insists that he can be strong simply by exercising. So our only successful motivation for him to eat healthy foods, was to reward him with "treat" foods. Now, I would prefer to keep the ratio of healthy foods high compared to the treats, but somehow we have gotten ourselves into a 1:1 rut. If you have a spectrum kid, you know how hard it can be to work your way out of those ruts! So the best I can do right now is to try to increase the portion size of the healthy foods, and decrease the portion size of the treats.
Now what happens when he decides to dig in his heels and refuse the healthy food? Because he has a healthy dose of stubbornness that his father insists he gets from me, but we all know comes from his father. ;) Sometimes he would simply rather starve himself, all the while throwing a loud ugly fit about being hungry, than eat something healthy. This is where the third category comes in: "snack" foods. These are foods that are a sort of compromise. They may not have much nutritional value, but they ease his hunger and help abate the behaviors without filling him full of sugar.
So here's how it ends up working. If he's hungry, I try to get him to eat a healthy. If he eats a healthy, he gets a treat. If he doesn't want to, he can choose a snack food, but a snack will not earn him a treat. It was never a system that was set up intentionally or proactively. We just kind of naturally fell into it from a combination of our terminology and Boo's tendency to categorize the world. But hey, it's working for us. And who cares if strangers look at me like a child abuser when my kid refers to McDonald's "chicken and fries" as healthy food? They just don't speak french.