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Food Chaining: The Secret to Picky Eating?

food chaining

Food chaining is a technique for helping picky eaters gradually expand their diets. Using encouragement, exploration, and familiarity, food chaining makes diet change more natural. Basically, it’s about using the food habits your kiddo already has as the foundation for building new ones.

Let’s talk about what food chaining is and how you can implement it into your kiddo’s routine.

What is Food Chaining?

Food chaining is based on the idea that kids will eat foods that they like. For example, if your child likes Cheese-Its, you may be able to introduce a different type of cheese cracker. From there, you may try real cheddar cheese. On the other hand, maybe it’s the crunch of the cracker that makes Cheese-Its so appealing to your kiddo. In that case, you may focus on introducing other types of crunchy foods.

The key to food chaining is understanding the characteristics of the food that your child likes. If you’re not sure why your kiddo likes the food that they do, try going through my food discovery exercise. 

This will unlock the “who, what, where, when, why, and how” of your kiddo’s eating habits, which can give you a great idea of where to start in your food chaining journey.

food chaining and pre-chaining

Why Does Food Chaining Work?

Starting from a place of “like,” it’s much easier to slowly progress to a varied diet than to introduce an entire diet of new foods all at once. For anyone, it would be a shock to go from a limited diet of toast and peanut butter, for example, to a rainbow of fruits and veggies. Especially for our kiddos who take comfort in their routines, it can be a recipe for disaster when those routines are turned upside down all of a sudden.

Food chaining gives everyone the time and space they need to ensure that it’s a transition that fits the individual needs of each kiddo. Some kiddos will be starting from a place of greater food diversity and will easily make the jump to new foods as a result. 

On the other hand, some kiddos will be starting with a very limited diet and will need more time to work towards a balanced diet. Food chaining ensures that all kiddos can start where they’re already at and naturally progress at their own rates.

Another benefit of food chaining is that it appreciates the sensory components that each child experiences while eating. To successfully utilize the food chaining method, you need to understand which foods your child would be most willing to progress to. Going back to the Cheese-Its example, it’s crucial to know whether your kiddo is more so attracted to the cheese flavor or the crunchy texture. Knowing this sensory information will help you understand whether something cheesy or something crunchy would be a good next step.

What is Pre-Chaining?

If you’ve done any research on food chaining, you may have heard the word “pre-chaining.” In general, pre-chaining is used for infants with severe dysphagia, but can also be used with extreme food selectivity. In both cases, pre-chaining would be used before implementing a food chaining program. Pre-chaining focuses on developing and maintaining oral skills and increasing and maintaining tolerance to different flavors and tastes. In general, pre-chaining aims to avoid the development of food aversion in the future.

Getting Started with Food Chaining

It’s essential that you work with a medical professional prior to getting started with food chaining. As with any change to your kiddo’s routine, daily activities, and treatment plan, it’s essential that you work with someone who knows your child well and can guide you as you progress.

If you want to do some preliminary discovery work, check out my picky eating exercise.

Tackling food aversion and picky eating is no small task and you shouldn’t do it alone. Whether you work with your child’s occupational therapist, pediatrician, or food specialist, make sure that you are getting the guidance you need.

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Diana Fitts is a certified and licensed Occupational Therapist who specializes in sensory processing disorders and autism. Check out my About page to read my story and get a free therapy journal page to record your kiddo’s sessions!

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