By Christina Elston
Every mom and dad wants to have a kid who’s a good eater. “One of your major roles as a parent is to make sure your child is well nourished,” says Judy Hopkins, an occupational therapist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles specializing in children with feeding disorders. That’s why having a child who is fussy around food can be scary for parents. It’s scary for kids, too. Picky eaters have a lot of anxiety around food, and one way to reduce anxiety is to make things familiar. Enter food chaining.
This practice uses taste, texture, color or shape to link a food a child already eats to a new food that you want them to try. You might link French fries, for instance, to sweet potato fries, and eventually get your child to try a baked sweet potato. “The idea is to build on something really familiar for the child and move toward something that you would like them to eat,” Hopkins says.
Start by thinking about things your child likes to eat, and what those foods have in common with some foods you would like them to try. Choose the same meal or snack time each day for adding new foods so it’s predictable for your child.
On your child’s plate, place the new food (e.g. the sweet potato fry) next to the food they like (the French fry). Don’t pressure your child to eat – or even taste – the new food but do ask them to rate it after the meal. Hopkins uses a scale of 1-5, where 1 is “I’ll try it again” and 5 is “I love it.” Rotate among a few pairs of foods. When your child is comfortable with a new food, it moves into the “liked food” category, and then you place your next linked food next to it. For instance: You’ll place the sweet potato fry on the plate and add a wedge of baked sweet potato. It’s a slow process, but the ratings will help you see progress.
Hopkins reminds parents, though, that for toddlers, picky eating is normal. “I wouldn’t panic at that stage if they’re just not wanting to try something new or they say, ‘I don’t want that, I want macaroni and cheese,’” she says. “They’re kind of asserting who they are. It’s not a true feeding problem.” For those kids, calm mealtime routines and repeated exposure to new foods will generally do the trick. Just keep putting a carrot stick on the plate. “You just bring it back out without forcing,” says Hopkins. “Just by seeing it over and over again, those kids will usually eventually try it.”
If, however, your child eats fewer than 20 foods, avoids entire food groups or insists on foods being a particular brand (e.g. McDonald’s French fries), it’s time to seek professional help – the earlier, the better. A pediatrician, nutritionist or occupational therapist can help determine whether your child has a sensory processing, oral motor or underlying health issue complicating things.