Getting your toddler to stop playing and sit down to dinner is challenging enough, let alone getting him/her to eat the meal you spent so much time preparing.
Becoming more selective starts around 12-18 months for most children. When they begin to differentiate between items for flavor, colors, and textures and distinguish which they prefer. For some kids, selective (or picky) eating is a short-lived stage. For others, it can become an ongoing challenge and make mealtime a stressful, chaotic experience for everyone involved.
Eating a wide variety of foods is important for healthy growth and development, and it sets the stage for a lifetime of healthy eating. But what are parents to do when their child won’t eat anything other than macaroni and cheese, chicken fingers and pizza?
In recent years, a new practice called “food chaining” has emerged in many households that is helping kids to double the number of foods they like to eat. It’s a research-proven strategy as described in the book, “Food Chaining: The Proven 6-Step Plan to Stop Picky Eating, Solve Feeding Problems and Expand Your Child’s Diet” by Cheri Fraker.
I first happened across the idea of “food chaining ” the same way that I did “baby led weaning”- on social media! One of my favorite account for autism nutrition shared how she gradually transitions children (specifically with sensory preception issues) towards trying new foods! (Your child having specific food preferances is not indicative of autism- this is just a method of feeding that can work with anyone struggling to accpet new foods)
It was brilliant!! I began reading every article, book, or even post that I could find about this topic and how to apply it. Because even though it is used with children who have difficulty with sensory preception- it is completely accplicable for all picky eaters!
Especially parents who are desperate to REVERSE picky eating!
Food Chaining for Parents with Picky Children
“Food chaining,” from the book by the same name, is based on the child’s natural preferences and successful eating experiences—specifically the idea that we eat what we like. Food chaining introduces new foods that have the same flavors or sensory features as foods that are already preferred by the child, increasing the likelihood that the child will like the food.
The technique builds on a child’s successful eating experiences by creating a series of links between those foods she eats well to new foods you wish her to eat. The links build on one another, making small variations on the food a child eats well to gradually introducing new varieties. The child is more likely to eat the new variety because it’s similar to the food she already enjoys eating.
A food chain consists of four levels that build upon one another. By following the levels of the food chain, the child will be able to build upon success with small changes.
Start with “Favorite (Preferred) Food“
Level 1 Maintain & Expand Current Taste & Texture
Level 2 Vary Taste & Maintain Texture
Level 3 Maintain Taste & Vary Texture
Level 4 Vary Taste & Texture
End with “Target Food”
Example Food Chain
With this food chaining- we will slowly be progressing back from cookies towards blueberries (because fruit is nature’s candy, right?)
From cookie to granola bar: you maintain the same flavors and texture– but change the presentation.
From granola bar to yogurt with granola & chocolate: you also keep the same flavors but introduce a new texture.
From yogurt with granola & chocolate to yogurt with granola & blueberries: you are maintaining the same texture but changing the flavor.
From yogurt to blueberries: you are changing both flavor and texture but offering a now familiar food that has positive associations!
Creating Your Own Food Chain
When creating a food chain, start with your child’s favorite foods to lead her on the path to healthier fare.
Be sure not to start a food chain with your child’s most nutritious food, however. When you alter a child’s favorite food, you run the risk that they won’t want to eat it anymore. So if you lose French fries, it’s no biggie. But if he/she stops eating the most nutritious item in his/her diet, that’s a problem.
Take some time to write down a list of your child’s top 10 favorite foods.
Look for patterns within his/her favorite foods that your child consistently eats. Patterns may include things like the taste (salty, sweet, savory, spicy), texture (smooth, crunchy, lumpy) and temperature.
Think about why he/she likes it. Is it hot? Is it wet? Is it crunchy?
Offer foods that are very similar to the ones your child enjoys eating and is very likely to eat. At first, start with a slight variation, maybe a different brand of chicken nuggets and then choose something with the same texture, like grilled chicken. Use properties that are similar to create the branch to the new variety.
Once your child has accepted some of these new foods, you can move onto the next level of the food chain. Introduce foods that are still similar, but may have a different pattern, such as flavor or texture. Then, you can try adding dipping sauces. Don’t be deterred if your child doesn’t try the new linked food the first time. It may take 10, 20 or even 30 repetitions before it becomes familiar enough for her to try it. A major step forward may be your child now picks up and smells a food that previously caused a temper tantrum.
Try to avoid the notion of “tricking your child” into eating these foods! These kids are already picky, and they will definitely notice. If you trick them, they won’t trust that food and you run the risk of losing it altogether. Include your child in the process instead, and talk to them about what you’re giving them.
Keep it as pleasant as possible with the least amount of pressure. Get creative and have fun with it! The goal is to expand a child’s flavor acceptance- not to force them to eat every bite on their plate!
Here are some other food chaining tips:
- Offer one new food with one snack and/or one meal a day.
- Offer a new food with an accepted food (different from the new food). The child doesn’t have to eat it right away. You can model eating it, then let child approach it on own.
- Keep offering new foods even if they have been rejected. It may takes multiple exposures. Typically-developing children can reject new foods 12-15 times before trying them.
- Place food on plate next to (but not touching!) other food. Use a divided plate, if you wish.
- Use transitional foods between bites of new foods (i.e. piece of accepted food, or drink of accepted fluid).
Source: Food chaining: The proven 6-step plan to stop picky eating, solve feeding problems, and expand your child’s diet. Fraker, C., Fishbein, M., Cox, S., & Walbert, L. (2007). New York: Marlowe & Co.
The author of this site encourages you to consult a doctor before making any health changes, especially any changes related to a specific diagnosis or condition. No information on this site should be relied upon to determine diet, make a medical diagnosis, or determine treatment for a medical condition. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. For more information please read our full disclaimer here.