Many parents of picky eaters struggle with introducing new foods to their children. It’s why I created an entire course dedicated to taking the stress out of introducing foods to kids! Depending on how sensitive the child may be, it can be quite challenging. If your child is hesitant to try new foods, food chaining may be a good option.
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What is Food Chaining?
Put simply, food chaining is a technique where you make gradual changes over time to introduce your child to a new food. You start with a food that your child prefers and make small changes to it. The change can be as small as cutting a sandwich horizontally instead of diagonally. Once your child has accepted one small change, you can begin working on another. Over time, you can introduce brand new foods.
As with any technique, food chaining needs to be tailored to your individual child. Some kids are able to make bigger changes more quickly. Some may need to make smaller changes over a longer period of time. Neither is better or worse. Meet your child where they are at.
How to Do It
Food chaining takes time. It is a very gradual approach. While you are introducing new foods, you should also be serving foods that your child is comfortable with. Remember that even if these changes seem small to you, they can be extremely stressful to your child.
- Start with a food your child likes. For this example, I will be using fish shaped crackers. Figure out what it is that your child likes about the food. Is it the shape, color, texture, etc.
- Find a food with a similar characteristic. If your child likes the texture and fish shape, try getting the different colored fish crackers. This may not seem like a big change to you, but it may be huge to your child. You can even mix in a couple of colored fish with plain ones.
- Once your child is accepting of the first change, you can make an additional change. Maybe you can get another cheese cracker or maybe you can get a fish shaped cracker in a different flavor.
- Continue making small changes over time and you will eventually be able to introduce completely new foods. If you hit a wall, you can always slow down or back track. Because this approach needs to be very individualized, it can be helpful to work with a specialist.
Things to Change
These are just general examples of things that you can modify about a food. Remember to make one change at a time so that you do not overwhelm your child. Some of these changes may not be a big deal to your child and some of them may seem huge! Every child is different.
- Serve the food out of the package – many kids get stuck on the packaging. This can eventually lead to being able to change brands once the packaging isn’t as important.
- Change the utensil you offer – try offering a fun fork, a food pick, a toothpick, etc. to make the meal more fun. Often kids want the food to be served in the exact same way every time, so making this kind of change can be a good first step before they are ready to have the food itself actually changed.
- Use a different plate – if your child usually uses a divided plate, try using a plate without a divider (but keep the food separate!). Try serving the food in a bowl, a muffin liner, or on a big cookie tray.
- Change where you put the food on the plate – for some kids, certain foods go in certain places and even changing this can be a big deal. You can start by rotating the plate when you serve it and then move to serving the food in different sections.
- Change the shape of the food – start with small changes. Try thinner apple slices, but keep them as slices, not sticks. They should look similar, but slightly different. Once that’s ok, you can alter it again. Cut sandwiches diagonally instead of down the middle.
- Mix up the color of the food – you can use natural or regular food dyes to change the color of the food. Most of these do not alter the taste at all but the food will look very different. This change can be a bit unsettling if unexpected. This could be a fun cooking activity to do together, so that your child is prepared.
- Alter the temperature – you can try offering a cold pasta salad instead of hot pasta for example. Not all foods taste as good in altered temperatures, but this can definitely be a fun experiment if your child is willing to be a bit more adventurous
- Change texture – this is going from apples to applesauce or baked potato to mashed potatoes. This is a big step that can take a bit of preparation because the food looks different and feels different. For smaller changes, you can add something like chia seeds to applesauce. The chia seeds will thicken the applesauce a bit, but it won’t be a completely new food.
Food Chaining Examples
Food chaining needs to be tailored to the child. These examples may use leaps bigger than your child is willing to make. The starting foods may not be tolerable to your child and the end foods may not be foods you hope your child will eat. Use them as inspiration, not as a roadmap.
- Applesauce pouch → applesauce served into a bowl served with a spoon (same food, served differently) → applesauce with diced apples (same food, added texture) → diced apples (same food, cut differently) → sliced apples (same food, cut differently) → sliced pears (new food, same shape)
- French Fries from a restaurant → baked fries at home (similar shape, new brand) → potato wedges (new shape) → baked potato (new shape)
- French Fries from a restaurant → baked fries at home (similar shape, new brand) → sweet potato fries (same shape, new food) → roasted sweet potato (new shape) → roasted butternut squash (new food, similar color/shape)
- Chicken nuggets from a restaurant → chicken nuggets baked at home (similar shape) → chicken nuggets at home (different shape) → fish sticks (new food, same shape) → fried fish (same food, looks different) → baked fish (same food, no breading)
- Macaroni and cheese → macaroni and cheese with diced broccoli (added in new food) → broccoli cheese soup (similar food, no noodles) → broccoli with cheese sauce (similar food, bigger pieces of broccoli) → roasted broccoli (no cheese sauce)
Krystyn Parks is a Registered Dietitian and Lactation Consultant who specializes in feeding children. She has a Master’s Degree in Nutritional Science from California State University Long Beach. She is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and has been registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration since 2013.