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Food Jags, Chains, Oh My!

Learning how to incorporate new foods and prevent burn out of favorites.

It’s that time of year! Spooky season, if you will, and there is nothing scarier than having your child start to refuse one of the only foods they eat. This is common and we call it “food jags” in the feeding therapy world. This is when a child, typically with a limited diet, all of a sudden stops eating one of their staple items. This could happen for a variety of reasons (an illness that they coincidently had after eating this food, underlying medical condition, it was shaped slightly different, the temperature was off, etc.). The good news is, there are ways to add these foods back into your child’s diet. However, if your child shows symptoms of an underlying medical condition related to foods (constipation, reflux, diarrhea) please reach out to your primary physician. Food jag prevention is only beneficial when there is not an ongoing medical condition linked to the foods.

Food jagged items should be put back into the weekly feeding rotation with no pressure. We do this by only giving the food every 1-2 days. This does not have to be a big portion. For example, if this was macaroni and cheese, I would serve two tablespoons on the plate with another food that is preferred. Then we explore! We see if we can stack the noodles, make them into different shapes, we see how many noodles we can put on a spoon at once, we try to pick up the noodle with our mouth and drop into another bowl. Essentially, we are taking the stress and pressure out of eating and developing a positive association with that food. Some things not to say at the table “But it’s your favorite”, “You ate this last week”, “Just try it it’s the same”. These phrases are common, but likely unsettling for your little one. Research tells us that one of the only activities that uses all 8 (that’s right EIGHT) of our sensory systems is eating. This is already a big sensory experience for children and adding to the stress typically backfires even when we mean well. Our goal is to shape mealtimes into a positive experience. I encourage you to change your mindset of instead of the goal being taking one bite of the food before leaving the table, we focus on interacting in a new way with foods in order to them feel more comfortable with foods.

It’s never too early to pre-plan! To prevent food jags is very similar to how to reverse them. Our goal is to not let our children get in a rigid routine of having the same thing every day the same way. We do this by only offering highly preferred foods every other day AND in a new way! This does not have to be a huge change. For example, my goal would be to changing the presentation of the preferred food. Say we have a PB&J sandwich on white bread with no crust (cut diagonal), I would start by cutting the sandwich one day into squares or stars. The next time I serve it, I might cut the sandwich diagonally, but toast the bread a bit. This way, the child does not have a picture perfect image of what their meal should look like every day and they get used to slight change.

Speaking of slight changes, this brings us to our last topic…food chains! This is a therapeutic approach to increasing the variety of foods your child eats. We do this by slightly changing the shape, texture, temperature, or taste of a preferred food in a strategic way to move closer to accepting a similar food. For example, if a child only ate chicken nuggets and I wanted them to eat baked chicken as well, this is what my food chain might look like. Chicken nuggets > chicken fries > chicken tenders > homemade breaded tenders > breaded baked chicken. Food chaining only works when you have an end goal in mind. The possibilities are endless! As always, our feeding therapy staff is happy to answer any questions and evaluate your child’s feedings skills if needed!

– Shelby Sharp M. Ed, CCC-SLP