From Cookies to Carrots, Is Food Chaining the Answer to My Child’s Picky Eating?

Food chaining is an approach to expanding a selective eater’s food variety that takes into account the sensory properties of foods.  This approach is highly beneficial for children with sensory processing issues as the reason for food refusal is often related to how their body is responding to food. 

From taste to sight and sound, eating and mealtimes pummel our senses with a host of inputs.  For typically developing children this information is easily organized and the brain makes sense of these inputs.  While it may take a few introductions of a new food, neurotypical children are usually curious about new foods and flavors.

For children with sensory processing issues, their bodies have a completely different response to new foods.  The experience often overloads their sensory system and engages their flight or fight response.  This can mean throwing objects or running from the table.   

Stressful mealtimes and preparing multiple foods is common for families with a selective eater.  Parents often feel shame and anxiety related to their child’s eating habits.  However, many parents have tried every approach to get their child to eat and are left feeling defeated.  Meals operate in a survival mode instead of being a joyful and positive family experience. 

Using a food chaining technique when introducing new foods takes a very different approach than what is typically recommended - offering your child foods you want them to eat.  Instead, accepted foods are carefully evaluated for their similarities.  For example, crackers, cookies and chips all possess a crunchy texture. 

The food chaining approach seeks to select foods that have the highest likelihood of being accepted by the child.  Very small changes in accepted foods are gradually introduced.   Each small change is carefully evaluated, and this information is used to modify future steps in the chain.  No two children’s food chains look alike.   

While the goal of cookies to carrots may be planned, the first step in food chaining may be to expand the types of cookies consumed.  It may seem strange to define success for a selective eater as expanding the number of cookies accepted from two to five.  However, understanding the underlying sensory dysfunction and challenges being overcome help give success a new definition.  The journey from cookies to carrots may be windy and may end up at a new destination. 

Food chaining is a slow and thoughtful approach to expanding a selective eater’s food repertoire. It stays in tune with the challenges children with sensory processing issues face.  Instead of engaging the fight or flight response, it creates a chain to move from preferred foods to new foods.

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