Picky eating is a beast, right? Food Chaining is a game changer though. As a pediatric feeding therapist and Mom to a former very picky eater I get the struggle.
I’m sharing what food chaining is, how you can get started, and how to implement this strategy immediately into your daily routine so you can help your child start to eat more variety.
The Worry of Having a Picky Eater
Several years ago I was constantly worrying about one of my children that had turned into a very picky eater. Actually, it was consuming me and my thoughts on a daily basis. If you have a picky eater then you know this feeling well. If you’re not sure if your child’s picky eating has gone too far read this article.
It was frustrating and stressful; always worrying about the foods he was not getting into his body. I couldn’t even celebrate the small wins because I was constantly worrying about the struggles.
You may be wondering what I was worrying about? I worried about how often my lil one was going number two (and it wasn’t often). I worried that he’d not eaten one fruit or veggie in a whole month. I worried that we were down to very few foods.
I worried because he was grumpy most afternoons. I knew this was from not eating any or very little of his lunch. The battles of not wanting to come to the table, trouble even sitting still at the table. The anxiety around mealtimes from my child AND myself.
The list goes on and on. I have a feeling you know exactly how I feel.
Dealing with Picky Eating As A Feeding Therapist and A Mom
As a pediatric feeding therapist this was really hard for me to go through. I was in homes everyday helping other parents feed their children so why was I not doing what I knew to do or what I thought I knew to do?
Maybe life got in the way? Maybe because I got in the same rut that you got into from the beginning and it spiraled into something bigger? It’s easy to do and before you know it you are in the thick of it trying to find the other side.
The children I see are babies and more medically complex so my experience (at the time with picky eaters) was way more limited than it is now. As a Mom I had this guilt and also worry that kept me from doing the hard things that I knew really needed to happen. I also knew we were missing an important link to WHY my kid was so picky. You know, that gut instinct us Mom’s all have.
As a feeding therapist, I knew there were so many layers that we needed to uncover before we could really move forward with progress. I started taking more continuing education that focused on picky eating. Often times there are layers and complexity that make picky eating what it is for so many kids. That’s when I discovered food chaining.
What is Food Chaining?
So fast forward, I called my OT friend who specializes in picky eaters. I took her course for picky eaters and our world changed. I started doing what she said and also incorporated food chaining, a technique I learned years ago as a feeding therapist.
In the most simple way to explain it, Food chaining is when you take a preferred food that your child is eating and you build off of it. It’s thinking about categories of foods (think protein/carbs/veggies/fruits/etc), textures, flavors, consistencies, and colors of foods.
Look at the foods your child currently eats and find other foods that have similar qualities and build off of each food. Picky eating is very complex and there are multiple layers that need to be discovered but food chaining is something you can start at really any stage in the game.
It works y’all! It really does but it takes time. It isn’t on your timeline, it’s on your child’s timeline. Them learning to trust, feel comfortable around mealtimes and new foods, feeling like the pressure is off, and it’s their choice to try a food when they are ready.
Food Chaining Examples
Back to food chaining. I remember being at the store with my son and he wanted a carrot cake from the bakery. I was surprised because he’d never even looked at something like that before but I bought it. He ended up loving it.
From there I made a homemade cake just like it. Then I used that same recipe and made carrot cake muffins. From there I was able to start changing the recipe little by little and expanded to all sorts of homemade and store bought muffins.
Do you see how I took the item he enjoyed (carrot cake) and just made the same recipe but in a different form? It seems like small steps but this is actually a big deal for picky eaters.
A lot of times kids get used to eating a food the same way and they won’t eat it any other way, even if it tastes the same. If the look is different their little brains are telling them it’s different and makes it harder for them to want to try it. A good rule of thumb is to serve foods but in different ways so kids get used to eating them in different forms. Variety is key from the beginning of eating.
Another Food Chaining Example
Food chaining has helped us move to so many different foods. I’m pretty sure we were one of the only families that had a kid that never had a Chick Fil A nugget at the time.
We started out with grilled chicken only. I wrote out what I would like for my child to start eating and then I made a food chaining chart to follow. We went slowly and I didn’t change things up too fast. I kinda just followed my gut and when I felt like he was ready to try something new I would make the new food.
Always remember to keep things like the texture, color, and flavor pretty similar so it’s not too big of a change at once. For example, if your child is eating only grilled chicken you aren’t going to try sliced deli meat next. You would most likely try a rotisserie chicken or even grilled pork chop. Make sense?
We have gone from a specific type of waffle to different types and flavors of waffles, pancakes, muffins, etc. Breakfast is a whole new world when you have different options to choose from. Thank you lord!
Why Is Food Chaining A Great Place To Start?
Luckily we did this all before we found out we were dealing with a dairy and gluten allergy so we were able to really focus on expanding variety before this big change. If you are going gluten free this guide will help you too. Food chaining would be great to do to add in more variety.
I will say though that food chaining is something that I’m always doing and you can too. I’m always thinking about how I can bridge to a new food. It gives me and my kids something to look forward to. It gives parent’s hope to get out of the picky eating trenches.
I love food chaining because it gives parents a place to start. It gives parents something to do and something to start working towards. While you always want to dig deep and uncover the root to your child’s feeding difficultiesfood chaining can be a good place to start.
Sometimes uncovering the root to your child’s feeding difficulties can be hard and take some digging. With food chaining, you can start right away while you’re figuring out the rest. You take time to write out all the food your child prefers and has preferred in the past but may not eat now.
This list allows you to better understand and identify qualities of those foods. From there you can better pick out new foods to try or new ways to present these foods that will seem appealing to your child.
Food Chaining Maps
I make food chaining maps which help me to see which direction I’m going in. I write out the current food in the middle. Then I write out the foods that I want to try and the order I want to try them.
This isn’t black and white and I may end up making a food differently than I originally thought. I may end up trying a different food before another based on my child’s response.
I’m adding pictures of food chaining maps I’ve done in the past. I want you to know that I’ve been there and in a way I’m still there some days. The worry is real; the guilt is real; the love for your child is like no other; and I’m here to share what I’ve learned along the way to pay it forward.
Please leave a comment if you have tried food chaining and please share your ideas! It could make such a difference for another parent out there!
Carrot Cake Muffins
Carrot Cake GF/DF Muffins Ingredients
1 1/2 cups King Arthur 1 to 1 cup Gluten Free flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 1 cup finely shredded carrots (about 2-3 carrots)
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
1/3 cup natural unsweetened apple sauce or dairy free plain or vanilla yogurt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 egg, slightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup Unsweetened plant milk (I used unsweetened almond milk)
Preheat oven to 400. Grease cupcake muffin pan with olive oil/coconut oil/ or plant based butter.
Mix dry ingredients together. Mix wet ingredients (except milk) in separate bowl.
Slowly pour milk and dry ingredients into wet ingredients and stir until combined. Pour into greased muffin pan (I sprayed cupcake pan with EVOO instead of using cupcake liners).
You can also add in coconut flakes or raisins. You can even do chocolate chips or sprinkles if your kids like that!