What is food chaining? It’s a strategy that involves finding foods that are as similar as possible to what a child already eats. Offering those foods will likely be more successful than offering foods that are vastly different than what your child is used to eating.
Picky eaters tend to be very routine in their eating habits. They feel safe eating foods that are a certain color, texture, shape, etc. Other foods can feel intimidating or scary to picky eaters.
Of course if your child only eats chicken nuggets and mac and cheese, our goal is to eventually find a fruit or vegetable to add to their diet. But it’s not realistic to transition from a chicken nugget to kale. For many picky eaters it’s not even realistic to transition from a chicken nugget to grilled chicken. Maybe not even fried chicken, for that matter!
To the average adult who eats a fairly well balanced diet, this may be hard to understand. You probably like to eat many different foods. You may enjoy eating spicy Thai food one night and creamy pasta the next. How could a person only like to eat a handful of foods?
Picky eating is fairly common in kids. It’s normal for kids to become more particular after age 1. In fact, they become more opinionated about everything as they approach toddlerhood! I probably don’t have to tell you that…
But what can you do if you want to work on expanding your child’s diet? While it isn’t easy, it is very possible.
Picky eating is not something that changes overnight. But with a lot of patience and a little creativity, it’s possible to add foods to your child’s diet.
Focus on Small Changes
When children are really picky, it is very common for them to slowly start dropping foods over the years. They may eat 30 different foods when they’re 2, but they start to get tired of eating some of these foods all the time, so they stop eating 5 of those foods over the course of a year. Then suddenly by the time they’re 4 they’re only eating 10 foods.
An important goal is to try to slowly add foods to their diet rather than dropping foods. Even if it’s just a different flavor of their favorite cracker, that counts! Pizza from a different restaurant? That counts too! Pasta that’s a different shape? Yes, that’s progress!
If you accept these new small changes as wins, you can feel like you are making progress. If you get too focused on wanting them to eat vegetables, you will likely to be disappointed.
How to Do Food Chaining
I recommend you start by making a list of the foods your child does eat. You could make one list that includes foods they almost always will eat and another list that they will sometimes eat. Also make a list of foods that they are never willing to eat.
Take a look at the list and try to find a pattern. Are all their favorite foods crunchy? Are they all the same color? Do they tend to prefer sweet foods? Do they avoid foods with strong flavors?
In the feeding therapy world we often use the term “beige diet” to describe a common diet for picky eaters. These foods tends to be easy to chew, highly processed, beige (duh…), and have a neutral flavor. The beige diet also often includes a lot of snack foods like crackers, chips, and cookies.
The beige diet is commonly adopted by kids who have oral motor challenges (such as chewing difficulty or a tongue tie) and sensory sensitivities. Chicken nuggets are a classic staple in the beige diet.
Food Chaining with Chicken Nuggets
Some children are very particular about which type of chicken nuggets they prefer. Some kids will only eat chicken nuggets from McDonalds for example. If this is the case for your child, you may need to start by finding another fast food restaurant with nuggets as similar to McDonalds as you can find.
Try chicken nuggets from a few local fast food spots and see if your child accepts them. If not, you may need to back up. You can try changing smaller details like serving them on a plate at home rather than in the container or cutting them in half. You could also try offering a different brand of ketchup (like whatever you have in your fridge) if your child likes to dip them.
Is your child willing to eat McDonald’s nuggets leftover and reheated in the microwave the next day? This is another small change to work on that changes the texture of the food.
Once you are able to move on to chicken nuggets from another fast food spot, give frozen nuggets from the grocery store a try. You can keep moving down the chain in this way: Chicken nuggets from McDonalds -> chicken nuggets from Burger King -> frozen chicken nuggets from the store -> chicken strips -> fried chicken -> breaded chicken -> grilled chicken.
The key is we want to add flexibility and variety into your child’s diet, even if it’s in really little ways.
Food Chaining for Veggie Haters
Another way to use food chaining is to find another form or presentation of foods your child usually rejects. Vegetables are the most commonly rejected food group! Start by thinking about what textures your child usually prefers and start with that texture.
Many children have a preference for crunchy snacks. You can use food chaining as a bridge from crunchy snacks to vegetables!
Start by finding snacks that are infused with fruits and veggies but are still basically chips or crackers. This is really easy to find these days!
Veggie sticks and veggie straws are a common snack food. Are they as healthy as actually eating spinach? No, of course not. But it is a small step in the right direction and it is progress! These cauliflower stalks are really tasty and another step toward real vegetables.
If you have a hard time moving past veggie sticks, try as many brands and flavors as you can find. Even this is adding variety. You can also try different shapes, likes these wavy chips. This is also progress and adds variety to your child’s diet!
When you’re ready, you can move on to chips that taste much more like the veggie inside them. Terra chips are basically thinly sliced root veggies (like yucca and sweet potato) and they are kind of like a thicker, crunchier potato chips.
Did you know you can even buy veggie “chips” that are the full fledge real vegetable? They actually look like the real thing (because they are) and the only additional ingredients are oil and salt. You can buy these online here or find them at your local grocery store. They’re usually in the produce aisle.
Another option to try is freeze dried vegetables like these freeze dried peas. They are made by simply removing all the water, turning them into a crunchy snack. There are no other ingredients in this snack, your child will be eating just peas!
They will know it too, which is an important part of the process. At some point you will have to offer them the vegetable that look and taste like the real thing. They have to know what they’re eating before they will be willing to sit and eat a plate of steamed peas that you cooked.
Other Food Chaining Tips
You can probably see now that food chaining is about making small changes slowly. Here are some other ideas of little ways to increase variety:
- Try different flavors of preferred foods. (Example: Food chain from strawberry yogurt to strawberry banana yogurt.)
- Try a different brand (Example: Food chain from Cheerios to the generic store brand of “O” cereal
- Try a different shape (Example: Goldfish crackers to Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies
- Food chain through preferred textures (Example: Try frozen yogurt if your child loves ice cream)
I know that picky eating can be stressful for parents. Hopefully this guide helps to give you some new ideas to try to reduce your picky eater’s habits little by little!
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