Getting Started with Food Chaining: Guide for Parents of Picky Eaters

The steps in the process of getting started with food chaining may seem a bit overwhelming. Using a step-by-step approach can help to take the guesswork out of implementing this strategy and helping your picky eater try new foods.


What is Food Chaining?

Food chaining utilizes very small changes in preferred foods to expand accepted foods.  It leverages flavor and texture profile of accepted foods to choose foods that have the highest likelihood of being accepted.  It is not a quick fix. However, for many children that have an extremely limited food repertoire or experiencing a slow and steady reduction in the number of foods accepted, it can be a very effective way to increase food variety.

To get started with food chaining, you need to complete a food audit.  This allows you to create a map of preferred flavors, textures as well as visual appearance of foods.  The food audit is completed in 3 steps and each are described below.


Getting Started with Food Chaining 

Step 1: Make a list of accepted foods and brands (if applicable)

Start by making a list of all the foods that your child currently eats.  Be sure to be specific about flavors consumed.  For example, if your child eats veggie straws but only the yellow and red one, not the green ones, make sure to include this level of detail.  For foods like macaroni and cheese or breaded chicken pieces, note any brands that your child eats.

Next to the name of the food, note any specific brands that your child eats if applicable. 

Step 2: Describe the texture of the foods

The next step after creating a list of foods and brands accepted is to carefully evaluate the texture of foods.  Typically, food preferences are closely linked to both texture and flavor profiles.  A comprehensive review of the texture of foods accepted will allow the food chain to be highly individualized. 

To describe the texture, use the following terms or variations that make sense to you.

Crunchy, creamy/smooth, crispy/dry, sticky/gooey, chewy, hard, moist/juicy

Step 3: Create a flavor map

Once you have finished describing the texture of each accepted food, you will evaluate the flavor profile for each food accepted.  Preferred flavors can be utilized to help develop a food chain that leverages foods with similar flavors. 

In some cases, flavor masking can be used with dips and sauces.  For example, ranch, ketchup or even caramel/chocolate dip can be used to help transition from one food to another.  It isn’t necessary for sauces to be used in a food chain, but if accepted, chains can be customized to include.

To describe the flavor, use the following terms or variations that make sense to you.

Sweet/sugary, salty/savory, tart/sour, bitter, spicy

Once you have a comprehensive map of your child’s preferred foods with both flavor and texture preferences, you can start to create a food chain.   


Stages of Food Chaining

Phase 1: Prerequisites

Before beginning food chaining, there are a few feeding prerequisites that should be in place. These general feeding strategies form the foundation for successful feeding.  Without them in place, it is difficult for any improvement in food acceptance to be achieved.

1.      No pressure approach to meals/food

2.     Scheduled meal and snacks

3.     Family meals/no short order cooking

Typically, many families find that their picky eater starts to demonstrate significant improvement in meal time behavior and even starts to voluntarily try new foods when the above prerequisites are implemented. 

While they will not resolve all picky eating behaviors, they are the foundation for successful feeding.  Once in place, the success of a food chaining program is dramatically improved. 

Phase 2: Modify Visual Presentation

This is the phase where changes in foods begin.  It is important to make very small changes.  Visual changes make no changes to the food being served except the visual presentation.   For example this might be serving fruit snacks in a bowl instead of from the familiar packaging.  For pancakes or waffles, this might be cutting them into a different shape.  For breaded chicken pieces, this can be choosing a different shape if offered by the brand or cutting existing into smaller pieces.

Visual changes to foods can still be very overwhelming for picky eaters.  Many are highly brand specific and insist on specific packaging in order for a food to be eaten.  The first phase of the food chain is making very small changes in only visual presentation of the food.

Remember that the goal is to make changes that have the highest likelihood of being successful.  Each small change is additive and over time, big changes are achieved, and new foods are accepted.

Phase 3: Flavor and Texture Changes 

The next step of food chaining involves making small changes to flavor or texture.  These changes should be very small and the food audit used as a guide.  Typically changes to flavor are attempted first.  In many cases the food chain will include both. 

For example, a different brand of fruit snacks would be offered in the same bowl that the prior brand of fruit snacks was offered in.  A whole grain pancake could be offered cut in a shape that is familiar from prior accepted pancake. 

It will likely be necessary to offer new foods more than one time before they are accepted or making a modification to the food chain.  Remember that exposure to new foods is valuable and immediate acceptance doesn’t mean it won’t be successful.

As the food chain progresses, fruit snacks could be transitioned to fruit leather or freeze-dried fruits.  Pancakes could be transitioned to French toast or muffins.  Each step of the chain involves numerous exposures to the new food and careful evaluation of

 

Summary

Getting started with food chaining can be both exciting and overwhelming.  Using a step-by-step approach can help you to create a plan for success.  By creating a comprehensive map of your child’s preferred foods, you will have the information needed about food textures and flavors to create a successful food chain. 

Next Steps

If you have specific questions or want to explore food chaining as an approach for your child, schedule a complimentary discovery call. I provide online nutrition visits as well as in-person nutrition counseling. With the right support and knowledge, you can help your child eat better.

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