Since feeding involves all sensory systems (sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste), eating is the most difficult sensory task that children face. Feeding issues are especially common in children with autism, including those with Aspergers, because of difficulties with sensory processing. In many cases, this leads to eating challenges at mealtimes.
“Food chaining,” from the book by the same name, is based on the child’s natural preferences and successful eating experiences—specifically the idea that we eat what we like. Food chaining introduces new foods that have the same flavors or sensory features as foods that are already preferred by the child, increasing the likelihood that the child will like the food.
A food chain consists of four levels that build upon one another. By following the levels of the food chain, the child will be able to build upon success with small changes.
For example, if your child’s accepted food is chicken nuggets, a sample food chain might look like this:
|Level I||Level II||Level III||Level IV|
|Maintain & Expand Current Taste & Texture||Vary Taste & Maintain Texture||Maintain Taste & Vary Texture||Vary Taste & Texture|
|Other brands and sizes of chicken nuggets (i.e., strips/popcorn/bites, both fast food & home-prepared); fried chicken patties cut into pieces (fast food & home prepared)||Different flavored chicken nuggets (barbeque, honey mustard, hickory smoked, etc.) Use sauces/dips to vary tastes.||Chicken strips (not breaded); chicken leg/drumstick; chicken breast; ground chicken patties||Breaded seafood (scallops, shrimp); breaded fish (fast food & home-prepared); breaded turkey breast; breaded vegetables; breaded baked chicken; crusted/breaded pork tenderloin; ground meats|
Here are some other food chaining tips:
- Offer one new food with one snack and/or one meal a day.
- Offer a new food with an accepted food (different from the new food). The child doesn’t have to eat it right away. You can model eating it, then let child approach it on own.
- Keep offering new foods even if they have been rejected. It may takes multiple exposures. Typically-developing children can reject new foods 12-15 times before trying them.
- Place food on plate next to (but not touching!) other food. Use a divided plate, if you wish.
- Use transitional foods between bites of new foods (i.e. piece of accepted food, or drink of accepted fluid).
Remember, be patient! Expanding a child’s food preferences takes time, so be prepared to move slowly.
By Loree Primeau, PhD, OTR, Executive Director, Autism Community Network
Food chaining: The proven 6-step plan to stop picky eating, solve feeding problems, and expand your child’s diet. Fraker, C., Fishbein, M., Cox, S., & Walbert, L. (2007). New York: Marlowe & Co.
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