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If you have a picky eater, try food chaining

December 06, 2016

Have a picky eater in your house? Don’t fret. I have a few tools that have created successful mealtimes for kids and their parents time and time again.

As a pediatric occupational therapist, I work with children who are diagnosed with medical reasons for their feeding difficulties and others who are described as picky eaters but can safely accept food.  A child is considered a picky eater when they are accepting only a limited variety of foods, usually less than 20, only specific brands of foods, or they will only eat foods that are cooked or presented in a specific way. The picky eaters of the world have had extreme meltdowns about food and around mealtimes. If you have a picky eater in your house, no doubt you have also felt the pressure to instill healthy eating habits in your children. This can be especially stressful for you when you look at the five food groups and realize your child only eats foods from one or two.  As a therapist, I work towards healthy meals for every child, however picky eaters and their parents need a place to start that doesn’t seem like such an impossible task. 

Helping your child expand their food repertoire is a great long term goal, but first we need to focus on some short-term goals and expectations. Let’s aim for experiencing success early with our eye on the prize of healthy and happy mealtimes.

Try to understand the relationship your child has with food

If your child is able to talk, have conversations about how they feel about the foods they love and those they don’t. Can they describe why they don’t eat a variety of foods? Help them to explain and identify how the food feels in their mouth, if it makes their tummy hurt, or if they prefer certain flavors or textures. Do they love sweet or salty? Crave only crunchy foods? Avoid “mixed textures” like casseroles?  If they are younger, story time with food books, performing imitation games using mouth movements, blowing bubbles, providing messy play activities and having them in the kitchen during meal prep and mealtime can assist with decreasing fear of certain food items and provide more awareness of their mouth.

What is food chaining?

Food chaining is a child-friendly approach that enables your child to try new foods that are similar to foods they currently enjoy and eat consistently. I use this every day, helping kids experience success with eating. It is a tool that is easily carried over into the home with the family. According to Cheri Fraker, RD, LD, CLC,  a registered pediatric dietitian and lactation consultant specializing in pediatric feeding disorders, in her book Food Chaining: The Proven 6-Step Plan to Stop Picky Eating, Solve Feeding Problems, and Expand Your Child’s Diet, Food Chaining emphasizes the relationship between foods in regard to taste, temperature, and texture, regardless of the reasons for picky eating. Find more valuable information on her website.

Food chaining is a child-friendly approach that enables your child to try new foods that are similar to foods they currently enjoy and eat consistently.

Let’s give it a try

  • Start by identifying similarities within the foods that your child is eating (remember the conversations you’re having with them about food). Think about finding foods of the same color, food group, texture, shape, flavor or smell. After identifying similarities within your child’s diet, begin by offering foods with similar characteristics. If your child enjoys apples, expand to presenting apples whole or cut. Try green, red and yellow apples. Have them in the kitchen with you to smash it up to make applesauce or place into a juicer to make apple juice. Help your child discover that an apple is an apple, no matter how you cut it. The flavor remains the same in its different forms. Can they go one step further and dip their apple slices in peanut butter?
  • If your child enjoys chicken nuggets, can they eat a variety of chicken nugget brands, shapes or presented differently like being cut up? Do they only eat 2 types of crackers? Can you find crackers that might be similar in color or shape but a different flavor?
  • Many of my clients only eat 1 or 2 flavors of a baby food or yogurt. Knowing that this consistency is safe for your child to eat, help them with a variety within that food consistency. Begin to offer other purees that are the same color or all the ones with the same flavor ingredient. I recommend adding 1 new flavor every 1-2 days as to not overwhelm your child and assist them with acceptance. Then continue onto other foods that are smooth purees, like yogurts, puddings, soups, blended table foods, and oatmeal. The opportunities are endless. Trying to move from purees to foods with more texture? Try taking the same food and add it to the puree to gradually increase the texture. For instance, try adding smashed banana to banana puree.
  • Think about food consistencies. Take cheese for example. Think of all the different ways you can present cheese. Sliced, shredded, cubed, in a spread or melted. There are different colors and tastes, but remember, cheese is cheese. If your child can eat cheese in a variety of presentations, including temperature, educate them on how cheese helps other foods taste good.
  • Some possible food chains include: french fries to mashed potatoes or zucchini fries; chicken nuggets to chicken breast or lunch meat; chips to dried fruit; yogurt to dips, and so on.

Move forward to food pairing

After assisting your child to expand through food chaining, move into food pairing. This is another way to expand a diet by choosing foods that complement each other and enhance a meal. Continuing on with the cheese example, now add cheese to another food that your child already eats consistently like bread or a fruit/vegetable. Help them to tolerate something new like a sandwich or place cheese on broccoli or salad. Even if at first they only eat the cheese, they are eating it off of a new food that has shared some of its flavor, helping to break down that wall of picky eating.

Too many parents of picky eaters have tried so many times to help their children eat “normally” but have become exhausted with begging, bribing, and meltdowns. The dinner table has become a stressful and dreaded part of the night and it truly affects the family dynamics. Don’t give up on your child. Help them establish that love of food and move past “fearing the unknown.”

Eating is an enjoyable experience, and children with feeding difficulties need help to find this truth. Remind yourself and your family that adding a new food into your child’s diet can require many presentations, sometimes it can take up to 100 times of trying a new food before a child accepts it.  Remember this and help your child overcome their fears of food, and praise even the smallest step in the right direction.

If you feel that your child may have a food allergy, medical condition or coordination difficulties for chewing, please seek advice and treatment from a medical professional. Your doctor can refer you to a specialist for further testing or feeding therapy services.