How to Feed a Picky Eater with Food Chaining

Written by: Catherine Callahan, Speech-Language Pathologist and Feeding Specialist behind Chi Kids Feeding

Does your little one regularly drink a sugary nutrition supplement? Maybe you don’t realize, but take a peek at the ingredients. You’ll likely be surprised at what you find. While nutrition supplements are necessary for many kids, several brands include a lot of sugar that little bodies don’t need. If you’re seeing too much sugar on your supplement’s label, consider transitioning to Healthy Height. With only 3g sugar per serving, Healthy Height is a nutrition supplement that gives kids the protein, vitamins, and minerals they need, without all that added sugar.

Now you may be thinking, “that sounds great, but my child never accepts anything new”. This is really common. Many children who need nutrition supplements also tend to be sensitive to changes in flavor, texture, appearance, and routine. Transitions like these can be daunting for caregivers and after the first no, for many, it’s easier to stick with what works. I’m here today to tell you, don’t despair. Using a simple feeding therapy technique, we can help your kids adjust to a new, healthier nutrition supplement without added stress and frustration.

When transitioning from a high sugar nutrition supplement to the low sugar Healthy Height, I encourage you to use Food Chaining.

What is Food Chaining?

Food Chaining is feeding strategy centered around the concept that all people eat and drink what they like. When using this strategy, you start by creating a list of all the food and drinks your child likes. Then, you look for patterns in that list to determine his natural preferences. Once you have figured out your child’s flavor, texture, temperature, and appearance preferences, you expand his diet by offering new food and drink that fit within his unique preference profile. After establishing a good variety of foods that fit his exact preferences, you begin to offer foods with only a subtle difference. These subtle differences can be in the method of presentation, brand, flavor, shape, texture, and temperature. Changes in your child’s preferred foods are made systematically, one by one, and are so small that your child may not even notice. “Food chaining is an effective treatment approach because it is based on your child’s natural preferences and builds up on her successful eating experiences” (Fraker, Fishbein, Cox, & Walbert, 179).

Food Chaining Ideas

Here are 5 simple ways to Food Chain from high sugar nutrition supplements to the low sugar, healthier option, Healthy Height

1. Make GRADUAL CHANGES:

When food chaining, as mentioned above, we keep in mind your child’s unique flavor preferences and make very gradual, subtle changes to work toward a goal food or drink. If your child has a strong sensitivity to the flavor difference, start by mixing the higher sugar supplement with Healthy Height. For the first week, add 1 oz Healthy Height to 5 oz of your high sugar supplement. If that goes well, the second week add 2 oz Healthy Height to 4 oz of your other supplement. Then, the following week, add 3 oz Healthy Height to 3 oz of the other supplement. Gradually increase the volume of Healthy Height and decrease the volume of your old supplement over time. While this may feel like a long process, in just over a month, your child will be consuming way less unnecessary sugar.

2. PAIR the new drink with a favorite, transitional food:

Offering a new food or drink alongside a highly preferred one is a food chaining strategy we use to keep children feeling comfortable and safe while they push themselves. When using this strategy, we encourage the child to take a bite of her favorite food in between bites or sips of the new food. A bite of the preferred “transitional food” can help to “cleanse your child’s palate” between sips of the new flavor (Fraker, Fishbein, Cox, Walbert, 187). If your child loves homemade banana muffins or store bought graham crackers, offer one along with the new Healthy Height shake.

3. Use a favorite food or sauce to FLAVOR MASK:

Does your child or someone you know dip everything in ketchup? Will they try new foods as long as they are covered in sauce? This is flavor masking. It’s an effective food chaining strategy that uses a child’s preferred flavor to mask a new, intimidating flavor. Pairing a preferred topping or snack with the new flavor of Healthy Height can help your child more easily adjust to the difference in flavor. As Healthy Height is more consistently accepted, you gradually reduce the amount of flavor mask you’re adding until you no longer need it. If your child goes wild over whip cream and chocolate chips, add those to your Healthy Height shake. If your child loves vanilla ice cream, blend it with your Healthy Height vanilla shake mix to make a smoothie.

4. Keep all other features CONSTANT:

In food chaining, when we change one feature, we keep everything else the same. Too many changes all at once can lead to failure for a picky eater. When offering the new Healthy Height shake mix, offer it at the same time of day and in the same manner that you typically offer your other supplement. Use the same cup and straw that you serve your higher sugar supplement in. If you have always offered your supplement blended with ice like a smoothie or plain at room temperature, do the same when you offer Healthy Height. If you call your supplement a healthy smoothie, bedtime treat, or even a unicorn shake, continue with Healthy Height.

5. Incorporate CHOICES:

While food chaining, give your child the opportunity to make choices. Incorporating choices can help your child “feel that he has some control over his feeding situation” (Fraker, Fishbein, Cox, Walbert, 195). When you’re offering the new Healthy Height, allow your child to choose his favorite food to go along with it (transitional food) or choose a special topping (flavor mask). Consider asking, “would you like to have your special drink with a chocolate muffin or a granola bar?” or “what should we put on top, rainbow sprinkles or chocolate chips?”

Food Chaining Examples:

Example 1:

John drinks Carnation Instant Breakfast chocolate after school every day from his favorite blue cup. His family’s goal is to improve his overall health by transitioning to Healthy Height.

Keeping in mind John’s preferred flavor, chocolate, maintaining the time of day and his preferred cup, making gradual, just noticeable, changes in the flavor and using a transitional food:

Day 1: After School

  • Carnation chocolate 6 scoops
  • Blue cup →

Day 2: After School

  • Carnation chocolate 4 scoops with 1/2 scoop Healthy Height chocolate shake mix
  • Blue cup
  • + favorite chocolate chip cookie (transitional food)→

Day 3: After School

  • Carnation chocolate 2 scoops with 1 scoop Healthy Height chocolate shake mix
  • Blue cup
  • + favorite chocolate chip cookie→

Day 4: After School

  • Carnation chocolate 1 scoops with 1½ scoops Healthy Height chocolate shake mix
  • Blue cup
  • + favorite chocolate chip cookie →

Day 5: After School

  • 2 scoops (full serving) Healthy Height chocolate shake mix
  • Blue cup
  • +favorite chocolate chip cookie →

Example 2:

 

Sarah drinks vanilla Pediasure every night before bed. She loves adding whip cream and mini chocolate chips to her desserts. Her family’s goal is to reduce the sugar in her diet by transitioning to Healthy Height.

Keeping in mind Sarah’s preferred flavors, vanilla and sweet, maintaining the time of day and the cup, while using flavor masking and giving choices to help her to feel in control:

Step 1:

  • Offer new Healthy Height vanilla shake mix
  • As an evening snack
  • In her favorite princess cup
  • Add a generous portion of whip cream (flavor masking)
  • Allow her to choose chocolate chips or rainbow sprinkles (choices)

Step 2:

  • Offer the Healthy Height vanilla shake mix
  • As an evening snack
  • In her favorite princess cup
  • Gradually reduce the portion of whip cream
  • Allow her to choose chocolate chips or rainbow sprinkles, but gradually reduce the volume added

Transitions are always hard, but remember that you are not alone. Feel free to reach out to @chikidsfeeding or @healthyheight with any questions or concerns that arise, and to share your challenges. Keep pushing forward. Remember that you’re making a big difference in their health and wellness. Your children will adapt, and with so much less sugar in their diet, their little bodies will thank you.

Fraker, C. (2007). Food chaining: The proven 6-step plan to stop picky eating, solve feeding problems, and expand your child’s diet. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo/Life Long.

More about the Author: Catherine is a Speech-Language Pathologist, Pediatric Feeding Specialist, Certified Lactation Counselor and mom of three. She resides in Chicago, where she works at a top 10 US Children’s Hospital and owns her own business, ChiKids Speech & Feeding, LLC. Head to her blog chikidsfeeding.com and follow her on Instagram, on Facebook for everyday feeding strategies and mealtime advice.

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Every year our team of Pediatricians at Schneider Children's Medical Center have 20,000 visits from children with issues relating to growth. Our doctors wanted to find a non-invasive way to help children grow and the nutrition in our shake mix is the result of their efforts. The nutrition in our shake mix was shown in a clinical study to promote growth in 6 months, as well as improve sleep patterns in kids who take at least 1 serving per day.

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