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Simple Ways to Help Your Child Try New Foods:
An Introduction to Food Chaining

It’s a familiar scenario: you sit your child down at the table with his favorite meal of macaroni and cheese. You usually serve the plain elbow noodle variety, but all you have left in the pantry is the spiral noodle type. Surely it will be fine, right? If you have an extremely picky eater or a child with feeding problems, the answer is a resounding NO. Even though the macaroni is almost identical to his preferred type, we might as well be serving a bowl full of live squid. Although we are able to identify the similarities in color, taste, texture, and smell of the types of macaroni and cheese, all your child is focusing on is the difference in shape. To him, this is a completely different food. Having an understanding of this is crucial in helping your child begin to try new foods. While the reasons behind a child’s picky eating may vary (sensory aversions, negative associations, anxiety, oral-motor delays), most children can be gradually and successfully exposed to new foods.

In feeding therapy, we introduce children to new foods based on the idea of “food chaining.” The Food Chaining Program was introduced by Cheri Fraker and Laura Walbert, and is widely used by feeding therapists. By their definition, the program is “used to analyze preferred and rejected foods for any discernable pattern, then selecting foods the child is most likely to tolerate and using those foods as desensitization tools to help accept additional foods” (Fraker and Walbert, 2012). In essence, we are helping children to lessen their anxiety about trying new foods by taking what they already enjoy, and then offering foods that (initially) vary by only one sensory property at a time. This is not to say that our goal is for the child to eat 17 different types of cookies, but our goal is for her to be willing to try foods that are slightly different from those she is already comfortable with. As time goes on, the child will typically begin to trust this process and be more willing to try foods that differ more and more from her preferred core foods.

So where do we begin? The first step is to determine those foods that the child consistently will accept. For some children, the list may include dry, crunchy items, such as crackers, chips, cookies, and dry cereals. For others, the list may include bland, easily dissolvable foods such as pasta, chicken nuggets, and breads. The next step is to determine those foods that the child is likely to resist. For many children, this list frequently includes vegetables, fruits, and meats. Finally, we need to look for commonalities between all of the preferred foods. These commonalities may include smell (mild, strong), taste (sweet, sour, bitter, salty), texture (crunchy, mushy, dry, wet, chewy, meltable, creamy, etc), temperature (warm, room temperature, cold, frozen), or appearance (size, shape). Once we have determined what the child’s preferred foods have in common, we can select some new foods to try.

While any food chaining program should be introduced by and under the supervision of an experienced feeding therapist, there are some ideas that can be tried at home to introduce a child to some new foods. Below, I have listed some of my favorite foods to introduce based on what your child may already love:

IF YOUR CHILD LIKES:

YOU MAY WANT TO OFFER:
Chicken nuggets
  • Breaded chicken patty
  • Different shaped nuggets
  • Chicken fries/fingers
  • Breaded fish sticks
Macaroni and cheese
  • Other small pasta shapes
  • New cheese sauces (alfredo, white cheddar, mild nacho)
Potato chips
  • Kettle cooked chips, tera chips
  • Dried banana/plantain chips
Bread
  • Bagels, soft pretzels, rolls, muffins, cakes, bisquits
Toddler puffs
  • Cheetos, veggie straws, Kix
French fries
  • Hashbrowns, tater tots
  • Sweet potato fries, waffle fries
Cheese pizza
  • Cheese crisp, breadsticks, pasta with marina and cheese
  • Shredded cheese/cheese stick

Even if your child does not want to try the new food, getting used to having it on the plate, smelling it, touching it and even licking it are all big steps toward acceptance. You can model these behaviors for your child, without putting any pressure on them to try it. If you feel your child’s picky or restrictive eating is having an impact on nutrition, weight gain, oral-motor development or behavior at mealtime, an experienced feeding therapist at Kids Place can provide assessment and treatment to help your child learn to accept new foods.