This article will walk you through the concept of food chaining and will give a few examples of how to get your picky eater toddler to eat tomatoes and other vegetables.
Hi there! If you're new here, this blog is written by a mom of a toddler who used to be a severely picky eater (read our story). With lots of sensory play and feeding therapy, our son has overcome a lot of his food aversion, gagging issues, and pickiness, and is now an average picky eater toddler. I am super grateful for that!
Just like most moms, I am always trying to get my son to eat healthier foods. After years of mealtime struggles, I have LOTS of tricks up my sleeve for getting him to eat (see here for how to get your toddler to eat when they refuse).
In addition to these tricks, I use a concept called food chaining to get my son to eat new foods, and I'll show you how you can use food chaining to get YOUR kiddo to try new healthier foods too!
Food chaining - what is it?
"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." (Source) It's a simple concept, and it works.
Most picky eaters are not just trying to be a pain in the butt. They are actually intimidated by and scared of many new foods. With food chaining, instead of overwhelming your child with totally new and unfamiliar foods that seem scary to them, you give your child foods that they already like and eat, and then make small changes to the foods over time to get to the new foods that you want them to eat.
In this blog post, I'll show you a few food chaining paths you can use to try to get your child to eat tomatoes. Of course, this assumes that your child already eats other foods, such as pasta or pizza (or cucumbers).
If your child doesn't eat these things, don't worry! I'll have lots of different articles for how to get your child to eat other healthy things. After all, it's OK if they don't eat tomatoes right NOW. As long as you're slowly taking steps in the right direction, right?
And if your child already eats tomatoes, read the examples below to see if you can use the same food chaining concept to find another food that you want your child to eat.
Food chaining - pasta to tomatoes
Let's say your child eats only plain buttered noodles. Here are the steps to take to get them to go from noodles to tomatoes. Each of these steps might take you a few days or even weeks to get through. It's OK if your child is not immediately OK with eating chunks of tomatoes in their pasta sauce. Don't worry. Do your best.
- Smear a tiny bit of marinara sauce on one piece of plain noodle. If your child eats it, add a little more sauce to another piece of pasta, either right away or at the next meal. If they don't want to even try it, back off a bit - don't pressure them. Maybe try one of these sensory tricks to get them to eat it. Or just hide the smear of marinara sauce on the back of the pasta because chances are they won't even really taste it. And if they do taste it, they might like it.
- When your child is comfortable with a tiny smear of sauce, add more sauce to all of the pasta.
- When they're comfortable with saucy pasta, make a marinara sauce with chunks of tomatoes.
- Then switch to a sauce made from diced tomatoes (such as the tomato sauce in this pasta with shrimp in tomato sauce)
- Then cut up a cherry or grape tomato and add it to the sauce.
- If they eat that, place a cut up cherry or grape tomato next to the pasta with the sauce.
- Eventually, do away with the pasta and the sauce and serve your kiddo cherry and grape tomatoes.
- Then move on to chopped larger tomatoes (beefsteak tomatoes are usually very tasty and sweet!).
Voila! Your kid is eating tomatoes.
Food chaining - pizza to tomatoes
Now lets say your child loves pizza but refuses to eat tomatoes. These food chaining steps might require you to make homemade pizza. You can use something like naan bread to easily make totally customized pizza at home for each of the following steps (here is an example recipe for naan pizza). If your child won't eat naan pizza, then make pizza with store-bought pizza dough or work with your pizza place to customize some pizzas for your kiddo.
- Serve pizza with less cheese but the same amount of tomato sauce.
- Serve pizza with thinly sliced tomatoes "hidden" between the sauce and the cheese.
- Serve pizza with thinly sliced tomatoes on top of the cheese, like a normal pizza topping.
- Serve pizza with diced tomatoes (drained from a can) or diced cherry or grape tomatoes as a topping.
- Serve pizza with both cooked diced tomatoes (from step 4) and a few pieces of fresh diced tomatoes.
- Add more fresh diced tomatoes.
- Serve pizza with a piece or two or diced tomato on the side.
Voila! Your kid is eating tomatoes.
Food chaining - meatballs to tomatoes
- Start with some meatballs in marinara sauce. If your kid doesn't like sauce, then scroll up to the Pasta to Tomatoes example and follow steps 1 and 2.
- Serve meatballs in a chunky tomato sauce.
- Serve meatballs with a chunky tomato sauce and diced fresh tomatoes.
- Serve meatballs with MORE diced fresh tomatoes.
- Serve meatballs in sauce with a few pieces of diced fresh tomatoes on the side.
Voila! Your kid is eating tomatoes.
Another example of food chaining: French fries to carrots
- Start with your child eating French fries.
- Switch over to sweet potato fries.
- Then try making these carrot fries in the air fryer. These first two transitions might take time and some creativity for how to serve sweet potato fries and carrot fries to get your child to eat them, but the transition from fries to carrots is pretty easy! You can take it a few steps further if you like:
- Then try roasting similar shaped carrots in the oven.
- Serve carrots in different pieces - chop up the carrot fries in front of your child so he or she sees that it's the same exact carrot, just a different shape!
- Serve the carrots in different foods, such as this kid-friendly chicken noodle soup.
- Cook carrots slightly less so your child tries different textures, eventually barely cooking them, to transition your child to eating raw carrots as a snack.
Do you get the idea? Make small changes to the foods your child already loves so you don't overwhelm them. Think of it like a little "puzzle" to solve by chaining two totally different foods together.
You can think of your own food chains to go from sandwiches and thinly sliced hidden tomatoes to tomatoes. Or soup made with diced tomatoes to tomatoes. Or cucumber -> cucamelons -> grape tomatoes. Get creative!
Of course, I know it is not that simple. Some kids feel more challenged and threatened by some foods. If that's the case with your child and tomatoes, just drop the tomato as a goal and find a new target food. It's not worth traumatizing your kid over one specific food when you could be focusing on getting them to eat lots of new different foods! And maybe in a few months or years when they are more comfortable with other vegetables, they will be more willing to try tomatoes without any food chaining shenanigans.
Looking for other tips for helping your picky eater toddler? Here are some of my most helpful blog posts:
- 7 Reasons to let your picky eater eat French fries - this is a similar concept to food chaining, but make sure you read this so you don't ever feel bad about your child's diet
- How much protein toddlers need - from age 1-5, plus LOTS of meat and non-meat protein ideas for picky toddlers
- 52 Weeks of Sensory - I created a list of a year's worth of weekly sensory activities to help picky eater toddlers overcome their sensory issues
- Feeding therapy for picky eating
- How I got my toddler to eat his first vegetable
- 20+ ways to get a toddler to eat when they refuse
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