Taking Your Picky Eater on Vacation.

bigstock-Question-mark-made-of-peas-on--48090659Eating can be a daily challenge with a child on the spectrum. It can be even more challenging when there are co-occurring conditions such as allergies, GI problems. Then there are those that need gluten-free or other specific dietary interventions. On top of all of these issues, lots of kids on the spectrum are picky, or even extremely picky eaters.

We’ll address some possible things that you can do with your picky eater. When it comes to GI issues, allergies or dietary interventions, you must still seek the advice of the relevant professional that you currently use. Do tell your GI specialist/allergist/nutritionist about your vacation plans and see what advice they may have that can help you.

Even without those issues, you may well face considerable challenges with a child that will only eat a very limited selection of foods. Here we can offer some suggestions.

At the extreme, you could restrict yourself to renting a vacation home. The upside here is that you should get a fully equipped kitchen. If it’s a vacation rental home within the US, supermarkets and food stores should be similar to those at home. Before booking, you could even contact property management to inquire about local shopping. If you are still unsure about the local stores, you might ship some items from home to arrive ahead of you.

What’s the downside, then? The big and obvious drawback is that you’ll end up doing all of the food preparation just as you do at home and that this will limit the extent to which your vacation is a break for you. If you take your vacation at a vacation home outside of the US, the shopping will be more challenging.

If you stay at a resort, there is a resource that will help you. The title may vary but you are looking for the Food and Beverage Manager. This is the person with overall management responsibility for the restaurants and bars at their establishment. Start by asking for the Food and Beverage Manager but speak to whomever fills this role, regardless of formal title.

Explain your child’s issues and limitations to this person and ask them to tell you whether they can cater to those needs. They have every reason to be straight and honest with you. They are not looking to attract problems that they can’t resolve. Have this conversation before booking something. You are not looking, yet, at a meal-by-meal plan. You’re looking for the assurance that you child’s needs can be met.

What do you do if the property tells you that you may only speak to the Food and Beverage Manager if you already have a booking and won’t let you do so until you do? In this instance, you should probably move on to some other establishment that will do this for you. (Alternately you could pick up the phone to us. We haven’t, yet, been denied such access.)

Your conversation with the Food and Beverage Manager doesn’t end with that first contact. In fact, it’s just the beginning. Once you do have a firm booking, and in advance of arrival, ask for a point of contact on-site. This may be something that the manager needs to delegate. You are looking here for somebody that will help you with day-by-day, meal-by-meal plans and who can help you with answers to each specific question.

If you find a chef that is particularly helpful, you may get a totally unexpected bonus from this. You are generally dealing with talented and experienced food professionals. Even if your child has a very limited diet, they may be able to suggest other food items that might work well. If, for instance, part of the pickiness is textural, they may be able to suggest something that is different but still meets this need. Apply that same thought to smell, taste or any other variable. Anything is possible within your child’s tolerance of trying something slightly new. If you come back with some additional items that your picky eater will accept, this will truly be a bonus.

Of course, be sure when doing this that you aren’t ordering and, consequently, paying for an endless string of rejected meals. You need to agree something along the lines of “try it before you buy it”. That precaution won’t be necessary if you stay at an all-inclusive resort since all of the food is, by definition, prepaid.

Lastly, there are quite a number of properties where you can achieve a “hybrid” of the two main approaches here. These would be resorts that typically offer suites rather than rooms and have some degree of kitchen facility within the suite. This will vary from a mini-fridge and small microwave to a full kitchen that is much like the one you would find in a vacation rental home.

This way, you can still ask for help from the Food and Beverage Manager but have the option of using kitchen facilities in your suite as a further resource.


  1. If your child doesn’t have food allergies or GI issues, you might consider the change of environment an opportunity to expand the child’s food repertoire. My ASD boy was almost 5 when we went to Disneyworld. Up until then, he would only eat white foods: rice, bread, pasta, potatoes – all plain. It was incredibly frustrating. I was only able to smuggle some protein in the foods by cooking the rice with chicken broth, etc. Lo and behold, he was so excited to see the Disney characters that he agreed to try: French toast, pancakes, bacon, pasta with a little sauce, and a number of other foods! It seemed that he was in a different place, with different people and things to see, so he figured he’ll eat differently too. I didn’t push the food – just suggested he try what we were eating, making delicious gestures. The trip was a turning point for him!

    • I have AS myself and I tend to go the opposite way. Travel is stressful and when I’m stressed I tend to be more picky about food and less willing to try new things than when I’m home. It all depends on which way the family member with AS goes.

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