7 Steps To Food Chaining For Picky Eaters

Posted by

Breanne Haeger, MOT, OTR/L

Time to read

3 minutes

If you’re a parent of a picky eater, you might wonder “how do I get from Point A (what they eat now) to Point B (what I want them to eat)?”

For example, I know they love chicken nuggets and french fries, but how do I get them to eat grilled chicken and roasted sweet potatoes? 

This is where a concept called “food chaining” comes in. Food chaining is essentially just creating stepping stones between point A and point B. Instead of just going straight to the goal, we create baby steps all the way there. Slow and steady wins the race!

In the picture below we have a chicken nugget on one side and grilled chicken on the other. They are connected by a chain. In this visual each link would be a food that is a just noticeable step towards our goal. 

Food chaining with chicken nuggets to grilled chicken.

We use concepts from our previous posts to both connect and progress. 

Each step (link) should include a change in preferably just one of the following:

  • Shape
  • Color or other visual
  • Smell
  • Flavor
  • Texture
  • Temperature

Each step (link) should ALSO be similar to the previous step in at least one of the following:

  • Shape
  • Color or other visual
  • Smell
  • Flavor
  • Texture
  • Temperature

7 Steps To Food Chaining

Let’s go through the process of creating a food chain for our example above.

Link 1: Chicken nuggets

  • Qualities: round, crunchy and chewy, salty, warm, uniform color (tan)

Link 2: Chicken nuggets cut in half

  • Why: changes the shape and exposes small amount of inside (similar to what grilled chicken looks like)
  • Similar to previous in: Flavor, Texture, Temperature, Smell

Link 3: Chicken nuggets cut in half and reheated in microwave (instead of oven).

  • Why: maintains progress from the previous link and changes the texture to be less crunchy. Grilled chicken does not have a crunchy coating, so we are leaving the flavor but changing the texture to be more similar. 
  • Similar to previous link in: flavor, temperature, smell, shape, color
Food on Baking Tray

Link 4: Chicken nuggets with breading removed

  • Why: we change the visual appearance and texture by removing the outer coating, which creates a presentation more similar to grilled chicken.
  • Similar to previous link in: Flavor, Temperature, Shape, Smell

Link 5: Ground chicken formed into similar shape and baked (add seasoning)

  • Why: This changes the texture mainly, as well as flavor and visual slightly. 
  • Similar to previous link in: temperature, shape, and somewhat in flavor/visual

Link 6: Chicken breast/thighs cut into similar size and baked/ sauteed

  • Why: baking or sautéing will hopefully allow for a more uniform golden brown color. It will introduce a new texture bringing us closer to our target food.
  • Similar to previous link in: temperature, shape, flavor, smell

Link 7: Grill chicken and cut into similar size pieces

  • Why: grilling will slightly change the flavor, as well as visual (if grill marks are present)
  • Similar to previous link in: temperature, shape, smell, texture


Here are a few things to consider when going through this food chaining process:

  • Each link takes time! It won’t necessarily happen overnight, you might need to stay on one step for a while until they become comfortable interacting and eating that food.
  • Sometimes a step is too large, and you get to add an additional step in between. What we think is a baby step may turn out to be a giant leap.
  • Be sure to keep these exposures and steps lighthearted and fun! PLAY PLAY PLAY!
  • Sometimes it can be helpful to offer the previous step food with the new step food, to emphasize similarities and create comfort with the next step. For example offering a whole chicken nugget with the nuggets cut in half.

Experiment and have fun! Trust yourself to think of new ideas and create your own little stepping stones for your child. It is a marathon, not a race–so we encourage you to have fun and enjoy the journey. As always, when in doubt, play with your food!!

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