Dealing with a fussy eater can be frustrating and make you question every parenting decision you have ever made, however could food chaining be the answer?
What is food chaining?
Food chaining is an approach used to help people (in this case, your child) try new foods and increase the variety of foods that they eat.
Food chaining involves your child being presented with foods that have similar sensory properties to some of their already accepted foods. This means similar textures, temperatures or tastes. This is ultimately how we create a "food chain".
For example; if your child only eats skinny fries you can keep the same temperature, taste and texture by gradually moving to thicker cut chips, then to potato wedges, and then to a baked potato. You could move further along to chunky mash and then finally mashed potato.
These are called "bridge" foods, as they play a metaphorical bridge between the foods your child already eats and the foods you would like them to try by using a slow and gradual approach.
This method is a great way to introduce new foods to a child who has sensory perception difficulties.
So how does food chaining work?
As I said above it works to expand your child's dietary intake by gradually building off foods your child already prefers. The first step is to identify what your child's food preferences are. Do they prefer a particular brand? Are they all crunchy? Sweet? Salty? If your child can talk, you could ask them to describe some of their favourite foods for you. If your little one can't say much yet try to watch them while eating and see what their favourite foods all have in common.
Once you've done this, try making a list of 5 to 10 different foods that have similar characteristics. Remember same texture, taste etc. Remember that each step builds upon the other and starts with your child's favourite foods and ends with a target new food.
Basic food chaining
Start with: One of your child's favourite foods
Level 1 - Maintain and expand on current texture and taste
Level 2 - Change taste but maintain texture
Level 3 - Maintain taste but change texture
Level 4 - Vary taste and texture
End with: target food
Example 1 of a food chain: Plain pasta - pasta with sauce
Plain pasta > Plain pasta with sauce nearby > Dip and wipe off > Teeny dip and a bit > Work up to 1/2 sauce and 1/2 plain > More sauce, still some plain.
Example 2 of a food chain: Crisps to banana
Crisps > salted plantain chips > banana chips > freeze dried bananas > frozen banana slices > banana
Example 3 of a food chain: Plain pasta to macaroni cheese
Plain pasta > Plain pasta with cheese on the side > Plain pasta with shredded cheese on the side > Shredded cheese combined with pasta bite > Melted cheese on pasta bite > Macaroni cheese
Tips to make it a bit easier
Use transitional foods
By this I mean don't remove your child's "normal foods" from their diet completely. While food chaining, try letting your child enjoy their favourite foods while trying their new foods.
For example; if moving from skinny chips, why not let them have skinny chips and different brands i.e. thicker chips in between.
By doing this you could reduce pushback during this process. It could also reduce the risk of your child thinking of this as punishment rather than an opportunity to try new delicious foods.
Don't give up!
Research (Lam, 2015) show's it can take up to 15 - 20 times of introducing a new food before your child might even lick the food never mind accept it. So be prepared for food chaining to take a little longer.
Slow and steady wins the race!
Never force feed your child
Life with a fussy eater can be frustrating but no matter how tired or frustrated you may feel during this process, it's important to never force any foods into your child's diet. Studies have shown that force-feeding children, simply does not work! It is not recommended and can result in a negative relationship between you and your little one.
But does food chaining really work?
Food chaining can be a long process and the amount of time it takes you and your child to work through will depend on your child. Every step is progress, no matter how small.
There have been a few studies to date on food chaining. Cox et al, 2004; looked at children diagnosed with extreme food selectivity. They received food chaining therapy for a half hour to 2 hours per week. They found that after three months, food chaining had led to an increase in accepted foods, with some children eating and enjoying up to 120 new foods!
If you are struggling with a picky eater or a child with feeding difficulties, food chaining is a proven method to help. It's important to remember that it is not a quick fix but can help to expand their diet and try more foods.
If you are interested in food chaining consider speaking with your child's dietitian, occupational therapist or speech therapist.
Cox, S. Fraker, C. Walbert, L. Fishbein, M. (2004). Food chaining: A systematic approach for the treatment of children with eating aversion. Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition. 39(1); p51.
Lam, J. (2015). Picky eating in children. Front Pediatr. 3(2); P41-45.