Food Chaining For Picky Eaters: Learn How With Examples From an RD!

Food Chaining For Picky Eaters With Paper Chains

Dealing with a picky eater can leave you feeling frustrated and question every parenting decision you’ve ever made. Today, we’re going to learn all about food chaining for picky eaters!

We’ve all been there: planning, preparing, and cooking nutritious meals only to have them thrown on the floor by our toddler(s) who cry for chicken nuggets and french fries.

Maybe you’ve tried many recommended ways of stopping picky eating habits. Or maybe you’ve read my post about vegetables for picky eaters and still are struggling. 

In recent years, a therapeutic approach that claims to stop picky eating called “food chaining” has soared in popularity. 

Parents who have used food chaining therapy in their children often report significant improvements. They report an increase in the types of foods eaten and a larger variety of accepted foods in their child’s diet.

In this article, we’ll dive a little deeper and discuss food chaining for picky eaters. I’ll explain why it may benefit you when everything else has failed. I will also provide food chaining examples to help you get started

*This page includes affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Picky Eater Pushing Food Away

What is Picky Eating?

Though there’s no universal definition of picky eating, a child who has strong food likes and dislikes, eats a limited amount of food, and who is not willing to try new foods typically earns the title of a picky eater.

Depending on the severity of your child’s picky eating habits, it may lead to nutrient deficiencies and possible adverse health-related outcomes.

I don’t want to scare you because — honestly — it’s something almost all kids go through and is a normal developmental stage for toddlers.

Nevertheless, if you are concerned that your kiddo is experiencing more than just a stage of picky eating, be sure to speak with your child’s pediatrician to ensure your child is getting proper nutrients to grow and develop.

In the meantime, let’s dive into the topic of food chaining and learn a little bit more!

Food Chaining for Picky Eaters

Up until a few years ago, food chaining was an unfamiliar term to me.

Over the years, as I’ve learned more about food chaining for picky eaters and how it works to help a selective eater try new foods and solve feeding problems. I have been very impressed.

Being a registered dietitian, I am always looking for new techniques and methods to help introduce new foods to little ones.

To start, it’s absolutely essential to give credit where credit is due.

The formalized food chaining plan was developed by:

  • Cheryl Fraker, CCC-SLP, CLC:  pediatric speech therapist and certified lactation consultant
  • Mark Fishbein, MD: pediatric gastroenterologist
  • Sibyl Cox, RD, LD, CLC: pediatric registered dietitian and certified lactation consultant
  • Laura Walbert, CCC-SLP: pediatric speech pathologist.

You can check their book out here.

Food chaining with shapes

OK, so What Is Food Chaining?

Food chaining is a kid-friendly approach to help your child try new foods and increase the variety of foods a child eats based on past successful eating experiences.

During the process of food chaining, your child will be presented with foods with similar sensory properties to the foods already accepted. Think similar temperature, taste, or texture. These foods are used to create the “food chains,” which are links between the foods accepted by the child and the food you are aiming for your child to try.

For example, if your child eats only breaded paw patrol nuggets (like my youngest used to!), you can keep the same temperature, taste, and texture by gradually moving them towards a regular breaded chicken nugget, then to breaded chicken strips, and then to grilled chicken tenders. 

Essentially, these foods provide a “bridge” between the foods they eat and the foods you want them to try by using a very slow, gradual approach. 

If your child is like mine, I couldn’t simply put grilled chicken tenders on their plate when they’ve only been used to eating paw patrol nuggets every night.

BUT, over time, as the shape of the nugget changes and then it gradually becomes a grilled chicken strip, it’s more likely your little one will be open to trying it.

This method can also be beneficial for children with sensory perception issues to assist them with trying new foods!

Let’s dig a little deeper into how food chaining works.

How Does Food Chaining Work?

Food changing works to expand your child’s diet by gradually building off of your child’s natural preferences.

If your child can talk, have them describe their favorite foods, including their favorite textures, temperatures, and flavors. If your child isn’t able to talk, try to see what their favorite foods seem to have in common. Are they all crunchy? Are they primarily salty? Sweet?

Be sure to jot down little details of each accepted food. For example, if your child only eats a certain brand of chicken nuggets or pasta, write this down. If your child doesn’t have a brand or shape preference, you can simply write the food item down.

Once you’ve established a pattern of the types of foods your child eats, make a list of 5 to 10 different foods that have similar characteristics that you’d like your child to try.

If your child’s preferred foods list is very short, you can make a food chain for each food to build upon. However, it’s important to offer one or two new foods at a time and only offer it once a day.

At the most basic level, there are four levels to food chaining. Each level builds upon the other and starts with your child’s favorite foods and ends with a target new food.

Food chaining to peanut butter with toast

The Four Basic Levels of Food Chaining

Start With: Your Child’s Preferred Food

Level 1

Maintain and Expand on Current Texture and Taste

Level 2

Change Taste, Maintain Texture

Level 3

Maintain Taste, Change Texture

Level 4

Vary Taste and Texture 

End With: Target food

The food chain can be as long as you see fit, and there can be times where you branch off and try something else. Fortunately, you can get creative and customize the food chain for your picky eaters at home!

Examples of Food Chaining

Example #1 of a Food Chain: Goldfish to Broccoli

Goldfish> Cheez its> Plain Saltine> Plain Saltine With Cheese> Grilled Cheese> Potato With Cheese> Potato with Broccoli and Cheese

Example # 2 of a Food Chain: Mc Donald’s French fries to sweet potato

Mc Donald’s french fries > store-bought french fries > sweet potato fries > homemade baked sweet potato fries > sweet potato

Example # 3 of a Food Chain: Pizza Bagel Bites to Toast with Peanut Butter

Pizza bagel bites > mini bagel with butter > mini bagel with cream cheese > toast with cream cheese > toast with peanut butter.

Food Chaining For Picky Eaters. McDonald's fries to store bought fries to sweet potato fries to homemade baked sweet potato fries to a baked sweet potato

How to Avoid Road Blocks While Food Chaining

So I’ve tried this with my child, and it ended up working great, but we did run into a few roadblocks. Now that I’m more well-versed on the topic, let’s discuss ways to decrease the chance of hitting bumps in the road during food chaining.

Use Transitional Foods

When you first transition from your child’s “normal foods,” it’s important not to completely remove them from your child’s diet. While food chaining, consider letting your child enjoy their favorite foods while trying their new food.

For example, during the transition from Mc Donald’s french fries, let them have french fries from Mc Donald’s and have different brands of fries to taste in between. 

If you are transitioning from store-bought french fries to sweet potato fries, continue to allow your child to enjoy regular french fries and sample bites of the new foods in between. 

This can help reduce pushback during food chaining. As a result, it can also decrease the chance that your child thinks of it as a punishment instead of an opportunity to try new foods. Over time, gradually increase the amount of the “new foods” being offered to your child. 

Flavor Masking

This one works like a charm for my kids. Find flavors your child already likes and use them throughout the food chain to maintain flavor and consistency. 

This can be sauces, spices, etc. These are meant to phase out as your child begins to tolerate and accept the new food.

Don’t Give Up

Research shows it can take eight to 15 times of introducing different foods before your child accepts them. This means that navigating through food chaining may take a little longer than anticipated to reach your target food. 

Remember: slow and steady wins the race with food chaining!

Flavor Masking with Sauce for Food Chaining
Flavor Masking with Sauce

Never Force Feed Your Child

No matter how frustrated you may feel during the food chaining process, it’s important never to force certain foods into your picky eater’s diet. According to studies, force-feeding does not improve a child’s eating habits. It is not recommended and can result in a negative relationship between you and your kiddo.

Does Food Chaining Really Work? How Long Does it Take to Work?

Food chaining can be a long process. The time it takes your child to work through a food chain will depend on the child and how many times exposure is needed before you can progress. It’s important to remember that every step is progress and give yourself grace.

Though it may seem like forever, you are developing eating habits that will stick with your child for life. 

A study looked at ten children diagnosed with extreme food selectivity. They received food chaining therapy between .5 and 2 hours per week. After three months, food chaining led to an increase in accepted foods. One participant started with just five initial accepted foods and beverages and completed the study (three months later) with around 128 accepted food and liquids.

Conclusion

Food chaining is a proven method to help those with feeding difficulties and picky eaters. It can help them to expand their diet and eat more foods. Moreover, it is not a quick fix. Studies show that when combined with therapy as part of a food chaining program, children experience more accepted foods. 

Consider speaking with your child’s pediatrician if you have any questions about food chaining for picky eaters. They can refer you to an occupational therapist, speech therapist, or pediatric nutritionist who has mastered food chaining.

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