How Food Chaining can help individuals with Autism


As an Applied Behavior Analyst (ABA) provider, I work with children who are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, as well as Sensory Processing Disorders. These disabilities often are associated with feeding difficulties and/or picky eaters.  A child is considered a picky eater when they are accepting only a limited variety of foods (usually less than 20) or only a specific brand of food. Sometimes, picky eaters will only eat foods that are cooked or presented in a specific way. The picky eaters of the world can have extreme meltdowns about food and around mealtimes. If you have a picky eater in your house, you have also felt the pressure to instill healthy eating habits in your children. This can be especially stressful for you when you look at the five food groups and realize your child only eats foods from one or two.

I am here to tell you that picky eaters and parents need a place to start so that mealtime doesn’t seem like such an impossible task. 

It is important to understand the relationship your child has with food. If your child is able to talk, have conversations about how they feel about the foods they do love and those they don’t. Can they describe why they don’t eat a variety of foods? Help them to explain and identify how the food feels in their mouth, if it makes their tummy hurt, or if they prefer certain flavors or textures. Do they love sweet or salty? If they are younger, story time with food books, performing games using mouth movements, providing messy play activities and having them in the kitchen during meal prep can assist with decreasing fear of certain food items and provide more awareness of their mouth. 

To increase the number and variety of foods your child may eat, try food chaining. Food chaining is a child-friendly approach that enables your child to try new foods that are similar to foods they currently enjoy and eat consistently. This is a common practice amongst speech therapist and feeding therapists. Start by identifying similarities within the foods that your child is eating. Think about finding foods of the same color, food group, texture, shape, flavor or smell. After identifying similarities within your child’s diet, begin by offering foods with similar characteristics. If your child enjoys chicken nuggets, can they eat a variety of chicken nugget brands, shapes or chicken that is presented differently? Can they eat chicken with less breading and then baked chicken? If they only eat 2 types of crackers, can you find crackers that might be similar in color or shape but a different flavor? It is important to think about food consistencies. Take cheese for example. Think of all the different ways you can eat cheese. Sliced, shredded, cubed, in a spread or melted. There are different colors and tastes, but remember, cheese is cheese. If your child can eat cheese in a variety of presentations, including temperature, educate them on how cheese helps other foods taste good. Start putting cheese on foods they do like and go from there. Some possible food chains include: french fries to mashed potatoes; chicken nuggets to chicken breast or lunch meat; chips to dried fruit; yogurt to dips, and so on.

After assisting your child with food chaining, move into food pairing. This is another way to expand a diet by choosing foods that complement each other and enhance a meal. Continuing with the cheese example, try adding cheese to another food that your child already eats consistently like bread or a fruit/vegetable. Help them to tolerate something new like a sandwich or place cheese on a salad. Even if they only eat the cheese, they are eating it off of a new food that has shared some of its flavor, helping to break down that wall of picky eating.