If you’re afraid to begin GAPS, but know your child needs it, start by choosing the method that suits your personality, time, and support level. There are three methods I’ve used with clients to help them get their child on the GAPS Diet: Applied Behavior Analysis, Backing into It, and Cold-Turkey.
Today I’ll explain how to start the GAPS Intro Diet with your child using Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).
ABA is based on common reasoning used by parents for centuries and you’re probably already using the idea with your kids now. You want your kid to do something, and tell them they get some kind of reward when it’s done.
Simple examples are:
- Do your homework first, then you can have screen time.
- If you want to go out with your friends on Saturday, you have to do your chores this week.
This isn’t bribing, which gives something up front in order to get the outcome you want, but instead reinforces your kids’ actions or good behavior with the reward afterwards.
When you start using ABA to get your child eating GAPS foods, they’re not going to like it at first. Expect a lot of resistance until they realize there’s no way they’re going to “win” the game. If you don’t give up in the first difficult days, your child will understand pretty quickly that to get what they want, they have to do something for you. As soon as they understand that, your life will be much easier!
Work on one food at a time. It will be confusing to our child to introduce several foods at the same time. Choose which food is most important to introduce first, based on your child’s nutrition needs. It’s smart to start with foods that you think would be easiest for your child to accept. When you’ve conquered one or two foods and your child’s menu starts growing, you’ll find that introducing more new foods becomes easier and easier. Soon your child will be eating a varied and nourishing diet of GAPS foods!
If there’s one thing I want you to remember it is: don’t get frustrated by the initial resistance you’ll get from your kid. The first week or two will seem like an eternity in the moment, but when you look back it will have been the blink of an eye.
Remember that thousands of parents have implemented ABA programs with their children and survived the initial stage of tantrums! Nobody can teach a child who doesn’t comply with anything you ask him or her to do. Once you’ve won the first battle, you’ve opened your child up to accepting change and this new way of doing things, which means that you now have a child that you can teach.
Now let’s talk about how we can apply this method to introduce new foods to different types of children.
ABA with a child who is non-verbal or has severe language problems
In the beginning, use your child’s favorite foods as rewards for eating the GAPS food. The reward food examples listed, like chocolate and crackers, are foods that aren’t allowed on GAPS, but in the initial stages when you’re teaching your child the whole ABA concept, you can use whatever works.
If you can get your child to eat the GAPS food without using food as a reward, do so! If they respond to things like stickers, toys, videos, or play time, that’s even better. Once they understand the rules of the game, you want to move to rewards that are allowed on the GAPS diet.
Food reward example:
- Show your child the food or reward that he or she likes the most – a piece of chocolate, crackers, cereal, or macaroni and cheese. Put it out of his or her reach, but keep it in clear view.
- Offer him one bite of the GAPS food that you want him to try. Stay completely calm while you ignore tantrums, screaming, or crying. Don’t give her what she wants until she’s had one bite of the GAPS food, and don’t let her leave the table. Don’t be angry about the resistance you get – it’s your job to offer the food and embody the fact that these are the new rules of life and you’re just calmly enforcing them.
- When he’s had one mouthful of the GAPS food, or even just tasted it, give him his reward or food with lavish praise! Affection, cheering, or whatever your child would appreciate most. Then let him leave the table.
- After a short break of a few minutes, repeat this process again. Just work on one mouthful at a time, then reward him, and let him go.
- In a few minutes repeat this again.
- Work on only one new food at a time.
Give your child just a small amount of the reward food, like one or two fish crackers, a small bite of chocolate, etc. If they come back for more, get them to eat another bite of the GAPS food before rewarding them with another one of their treat foods.
Their preferred foods are now available only as rewards for eating the GAPS foods. If you give them to your kid at other times, she’ll wait for the time when she can get them without any effort or compromise on her part.
After your child starts taking one bite of the GAPS food you’ve been working on without any protest, the next step will be requiring two bites of the same food for one reward. You may spend a few days, a week, or even more on the ‘one bite’ stage. Every child takes a different amount of time. After you’ve conquered two bites, move to three bites for the same reward, and so on, slowly increasing the number of bites until he eats the whole meal.
If your child can be motivated by any dessert ideas allowed on the GAPS Diet in the beginning, then great! Forget about the food examples I gave and start there. Besides favorite foods, you can use anything else your child likes as a reward for getting them to the new food.
Video reward example:
- If your child likes to watch a particular video, put the video on for five minutes and then pause it.
- Offer her the bite GAPS food you want to introduce into her diet. Don’t switch the video back on again until she’s eaten the bite. Don’t give in to tantrums, screaming, crying, etc. When your child has eaten the bite, give her lavish and enthusiastic praise.
- Switch the video back on for a few minutes. After a few minutes, repeat the procedure again.
If your child isn’t particularly interested in videos, use whatever toys, books, stickers, games, etc. do interest them.
In general, obsessive behaviors and self-stimulation shouldn’t be encouraged in children with autism. However, if that is the only thing that would motivate your child, you can use them as a reward for eating GAPS food in the beginning.
ABA for a child without language problems
With GAPS children who don’t have problems with communication, the ABA method is similar, but much easier because they have some ability to be reasoned with. You can explain that he has to eat the GAPS food first, in order to get what he wants – like preferred foods, screen time, a game, a toy, etc.
I don’t use non-GAPS foods like chocolates or crackers as rewards with these kids. You can use homemade GAPS desserts, and tell your child, like your mom probably said to you as a kid, “Finish your dinner so you can have dessert.”
Even better than food rewards are using more sophisticated rewards like games, toys, trips to the movies, etc.
Just like non-verbal GAPS children, it’s important to start with small achievable targets like one bite, or a small piece of food. If you try to start with a full plate of food that your child hates, you’re going to fail because the reward requires too much work. Once your child accepts a small amount of food for a reward, move to larger and larger portions.
Be patient and consistent! Do not give in to whining, complaining, or tantrums! If he or she doesn’t eat the GAPS food, they don’t get the reward. It’s as simple as that. You have to be firm and kind. I cannot overstate this.
Choose the food and size of the bite carefully because once you’ve asked your child to eat the one bite of food you can’t back off or allow any negotiation or manipulation. If your kid “wins” one food battle, you have not only lost the food war, but you’ve set a precedent that they can use the same tactic to win on other issues and their resistance will grow stronger. If you give in and then try to start up again later you will have double or even triple the resistance. Start strong so you only have to go through this process once.
If your child refuses one bite of GAPS food and doesn’t seem to care that he or she didn’t get the reward, it means you’ve chosen the wrong reward. Choose a reward that your child cares about enough to do anything to get it. No matter how motivating the reward, never forget to add your lavish and enthusiastic praise and hugs! Your child has to feel that she’s done something really good when she had that mouthful of the GAPS food, so let her see how happy and proud she’s made you by eating the GAPS food. Your enthusiasm, combined with the reward given at the same time, will make this experience something for him to look forward to, and to anticipate with pleasure at the next meal time.
Keep in mind that most of the time kids have to taste a food several times before they can truly decide if they like it. As her gut flora begins to normalize, a normal sense of taste returns, most cravings go away, and she will start liking new and different foods. If you work on a food that they accept easily – jump for joy!
It’s important to keep this whole process positive, and even curious. Talk to your child and explain why you want them to eat these foods and how it will help their bodies and their moods. Older children and teenagers are often very aware and self-conscious of their moods and truly want to be “normal.” You can talk about this at every meal, using language and phrases on your child’s level. Ask them questions about how they feel after eating to get them connecting with how food makes them feel.
- Do they feel creative?
- Happy or grumpy?
- Are they forgetful?
- Does their tummy hurt?
- Do they have energy, or do they feel like lying on the couch?
If you’re already doing an ABA program with your child at home or at school, use ABA to start your child on the GAPS Intro Diet. Make feeding an area for your therapist to work on in the sessions. All you have to do is cook the food and bring it to therapy.
If you’d like a full-featured plan to overcoming picky eating, check out my book on the topic: From Mac and Cheese to Veggies, Please.