The staff at the pediatric feeding clinic at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago are among the pioneers of “food chaining,” a technique that creates a series of links between a food a child likes (French fries, for instance) and another dish you’d like him to eat (say, chicken potpie). The changes from one link to another are small (fries to waffle fries), but they gradually amount to adding a lot of variety to a child’s diet.
“It’s been our experience that kids—whether they have underlying medical issues or not—can quickly increase the number of foods they accept,” says pediatric gastroenterologist Mark Fishbein, M.D., the clinic’s medical director. In one of his studies, children who were eating only five foods on average before food chaining liked more than 20 after three months. Try these four chains at home with your picky eater.
Strategy: Find a transition food. In this case, cucumber bridges the crunch of a carrot with the color of lettuce.
1. Baby carrots with ranch dressing
2. Matchstick carrots with ranch dressing
3. Matchsticks of different-colored carrots with ranch dressing
4. Matchsticks of different-colored carrots and cucumber with ranch dressing
5. Matchstick carrots and cucumber, and small pieces of iceberg lettuce with dressing (gradually increase the sizes)
6. Salad with ranch dressing
Strategy: Change color gradually. Picky eaters prefer pasta with butter in part because the dish is all white.
1. Favorite pasta shape with butter
2. Other shapes with butter
3. Pasta dipped into cream sauce
4. Whole-grain pasta dipped into cream sauce
5. Whole-grain pasta coated with cream sauce
6. Whole-grain pasta coated with pink sauce; stir smooth tomato sauce into cream sauce (gradually increase the amount)
7. Whole-grain spaghetti with chunky tomato sauce
Strategy: Rely on the crispiness that kids like to help them grow accustomed to a new flavor.
1. Favorite veggie chips or puffs
2. Mix of veggie chips and puffs
3. Freeze-dried veggies of various colors
4. Green freezedried veggies
5. Sugar snap peas
Strategy: Implement smaller changes (like switching the kind of cheese or crust) before tackling the bigger ones (such as mixing in a different ingredient).
1. Favorite cheese pizza slice
2. Thin-crust cheese pizza
3. Melted mozzarella cheese and pizza sauce on a flatbread
4. Cheese and pizza sauce on a tortilla
5. Mozzarella cheese and pizza sauce wrapped like a burrito in a flour tortilla
6. Sauce gradually mixed with a smooth salsa and a mix of mozzarella and cheddar cheese wrapped like a burrito in a whole-grain tortilla
7. Cheddar cheese and salsa gradually mixed with refried beans in a burrito
Make two lists. Write down the foods your kid likes. Be specific; for instance, instead of potatoes, note fries and hash browns. Then create another list of five to ten foods that you’d like your child to start eating.
Build connections. See if any of your child’s favorites have any similar characteristics of the goal foods. For instance, do they both have cheese? Are they the same shape or color? Take the pair and think about how you could bridge from one to the other. At first, simply start with a slight variation—a different brand or shape, for instance.
Time it right. “Everyone is stressed and tired at dinner, and things may not go well,” suggests Cheri Fraker, coauthor of Food Chaining: The Revolutionary 6-Step Program to Stop Picky Eating. Instead, try new foods at snacktime.
Determine the size of the bite. “Let your child choose an ant-size bite, a shark-size bite, or a T-Rex-size bite of the new food,” suggests Fraker. “It will help him feel more in control.” Put it on a plate for him to try, but don’t lift the food to his mouth or say “take a bite.”
Get his feedback. Ask your child to rate the new food on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being “I like that food so much that I can try that again next time.” Wait a day and try a lower-scoring food again; if it’s a 1 or 2, take a step back and make a smaller change. If it’s a 3 or 4, keep offering it.