Food Chaining 101: Expanding Your Picky Eater’s Food Variety

What is Food Chaining?

Food chaining is a method that helps a child feel safe with a wider variety of foods. There could be many reasons that your child has developed aversions to certain foods including stomach pain from an undiagnosed allergy, an inability to physically swallow certain consistencies, early experiences with feeding tubes, or a sensory processing disorder. Whatever their trigger is, your child feels threatened by these unfamiliar foods. Food chaining allows your child to move foods out of the scary mental box and into the safe mental box.  

A food chain is a gradation of similar foods. For example, a child who eats only orange Cheetos may accept white cheddar Cheetos, then veggie sticks, then carrot sticks, then actual carrots. Each food must be similar to the preferred food in texture, taste, or color. Another example might be for a child who does not enjoy wet foods, but tolerates apples. He begins with apple bites, then moves to apples dipped in applesauce, to applesauce with large apple chunks, to applesauce alone. The progression takes place over several sessions, and each step on that progression involves a sensory chain of touching to fingers, touching to lips, taking a bite and spitting it out, chewing a bite and spitting out, and finally taking a bite and swallowing it.  

How Can I Use It?

Please do not attempt to start a food chain by yourself! If you have a picky eater, a Speech Language Pathologist (Speech Therapist or Feeding Therapist) can help you determine the cause of your child’s aversion, screen for swallowing disorders, and identify the food chain progression that would be best for your child. Pushing a child to eat foods that he/she physically cannot handle without professional consultation could lead to food going into the lungs instead of the stomach resulting in pneumonia and hospitalization.  

What Can I Do?

Before the Evaluation:  

  1. Take note of what your child is willing to eat, and how much they eat. 
  2. Offer new foods and notice how they refuse (do they gag? Push away? Cry? Choke? Get down from table?)
  3. If your mealtimes are consistent already, be prepared to tell your therapist what is normal in your home. If not, try to have meals around the same time each day with a routine that lets your child know it is time to eat. (See
  4. Provide choices for your child when offering new foods. Choices give your child a sense of control and decreases their stress even though you are still controlling what those choices are. 
  5. Reward your child for good behavior even if there is a large amount of negative behavior. Change will not happen overnight, and feeding will be much more enjoyable for you and your child if you celebrate the baby steps on the way there. 

During the therapy session:

  1. Communicate with your therapist about your observations at home about what your child will accept and their behaviors when they refuse. 
  2. Have foods with a variety of textures on hand: applesauce, crackers, bread, fruit cups, oatmeal, yogurt, meat. 
  3. Talk to your therapist about goal foods that you want your child to eat. 
  4. Observe your child’s response to the structure and prompts of the therapist. 

  During your mealtimes:  

  1. Be consistent with the routine and structure your therapist recommends for mealtimes. Structure can eliminate a stress around mealtime so your child has more emotional bandwidth to try foods he/she thinks are unsafe. 
  2. Watch your child for obvious signs of aspiration such as coughing and choking, but also watch for increased eye watering, nose running, and a gurgly voice quality. 
  3. Introduce at least one new food each day. Even if your child refuses, you are setting the tone that picky eating is not the norm in your home. 


A feeding disorder can present in many ways including an inability to drink enough milk, difficulty transitioning from milk to solid foods, choking and gagging at mealtime, refusal to eat all but certain foods, and more. If you have concerns about your child’s feeding development, please do not hesitate to give us a call at (865) 693-5622. Whether your child is having physical difficulty swallowing or you are having negative behavioral situations, a feeding therapist can benefit both your child and your entire family by reducing stress for you and your child at mealtime.

-Brianna Teague Scanlan M.S. CCC-SLP