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Nutrition & Feeding

Got a Picky Eater? Try "Food Chaining"

Help kids try new foods by starting with options that are similar to the ones they love

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For parents of picky eaters, getting kids to try a new food can be a near-impossible task. But a new strategy called "food chaining" aims to help even the pickiest of eaters branch out. Here's how it works.

What it is: “Food chaining is a diet based on a child's taste, texture, and temperature preferences,” says Cheri Fraker, a pediatric speech pathologist and co-author of Food Chaining: The Proven 6-Step Plan to Stop Picky Eating, Solve Feeding Problems, and Expand Your Child’s Diet. Figure out which foods your kid already likes and gradually offer new foods that are similar to those faves. "Gentle changes let your child expand their foods without anxiety,” she says, adding that she's seen this double the number of foods a kid will eat. 

Make a list of your kid's faves. To get started, write down the foods your child currently eats. This is called the "core diet," says Fraker.

Serve up similar foods. Take the list and add foods that have a similar taste or texture—and then give them to your child as a combo. Got a kid who loves cantaloupe? Offer it with a few pieces of watermelon or honeydew. For chicken-nugget-only eaters, add a fish nugget to the plate. For cereal lovers, consider different flavors of the same cereal. “Keep expanding by offering a 'close cousin' to the core-diet foods a few times a week until your child is not afraid of the new food,” says Fraker.

Ask for grades. When your kid tries a new food, ask him to grade it on a scale from 1 to 5 with 5 being the best. If a food is 3 or higher, try it again.

Rethink what's "new." A tiny step can help kids get used to the idea of trying a "new" food. If your kid only eats penne pasta with butter, try a similar-shaped pasta like rigatoni or spiral noodles. “You can cook just a few of the new noodles to mix with the penne and see who gets the ‘different noodle’ at dinner,” says Sibyl Cox, a pediatric dietitian in the Department of Pediatrics at SIU School of Medicine in Springfield, Illinois.

Make it fun. Take the pressure off mealtime by adding an unexpected twist, says Cox. If adding milk to cereal is a goal, let kids try to dip o-shaped cereal into milk with a chopstick. Or serve sauce on the side and give kids the option to dip a noodle in it—or even use a clean paintbrush to "paint" it on. 

Try not to cave. When kids won't eat new foods, it's normal to worry that they'll starve. “Eating the exact same thing all the time is called a ‘food jag,’ says Cox. "It’s common, but parents should not ‘feed the jag.'" Instead, continue to offer a range of foods and think about what your kid eats over the course of a week rather than the success of an individual meal. If you're not making headway, talk to your child's doctor.