What is a food jag?
While most children have a favorite food or a few favorite foods, they often have a wide range of foods to choose from. Most children easily engage with a variety of fruits, vegetables, starches, and proteins. Children with feeding difficulties have a more restricted diet and become increasingly reliant on safe and preferred foods, often only consistently eating as many as 10 foods. Underlying difficulties with sensory processing can impact the way they experience food, making certain smells, textures, or tastes trigger a “fight or flight” response. They may experience a “squishy” texture from spaghetti very differently than we do, as they may actually interpret the sensation as pain or discomfort. Oftentimes, this leads to preferred foods being eaten every day (sometimes multiple times a day), because children do not have enough variety to eat three different meals a day or vary meals across days. A “food jag” develops when a child eats the same food every day, in the same way, over an extended period of time. Eventually, their body begins to get bored or burned out on the food, causing them to lose that preferred food from their repertoire of accepted foods entirely. As parents and occupational therapists, our goal is to avoid children losing accepted foods from their repertoires, because it can be nearly impossible to add foods back into their already limited diet to ensure proper nutrient and caloric intake. By slowly spacing out the amount of time between when a preferred food is presented and making small changes to it, children have a reduced change of developing food jags, and are able to make new sensory connections in the brain.
How to know if my child is starting to develop a food jag?
- My child eats the same food or foods every day.
- My child becomes distressed if the food is presented in a different way (i.e. preferred sandwich is cut into a triangle instead of a square).
- My child only eats a particular brand of food (i.e. only eats dino nuggets, not all types of chicken nuggets).
- My child used to eat a food and now avoids any interaction with it (i.e. child ate carrots regularly for 6 months and then slowly stopped eating them altogether, also known as “losing a food”).
How to avoid a food jag at home?
- Change the shape: use cookie cutters, change a large size into a small size, present the food in long strips or ovals, etc.
- Change the color: use food coloring to make blue noodles, green milk, pink yogurt, etc.
- Change the texture: use a thickening agent, make applesauce with more chunks, make scrambled eggs slightly firmer, etc.
- Change the flavor: add spices, a little butter, a small amount of cheese, jelly, dips, etc.
How can feeding therapy help my child if they have a limited diet or a food jag?
Our goal during feeding therapy is to support children from a variety of angles. We want to support their oral motor skills in addition to their sensory processing abilities to help them tolerate a wider variety of smells, tactile input, and tastes, as well as improve flexibility and reduce rigidity around foods. By providing organizing input in the gym before transitioning to the table, we are able to get a child out of the “fight or flight” state that is often related to mealtime. We then spend time in the kitchen facilitating positive experiences with food by bridging preferred foods with novel or non-preferred foods (i.e. “That is a squishy food; What other foods do you eat that are squishy?”). We slowly help introduce new or non-preferred foods using a hierarchy approach with exposure to all senses and different areas of the face. Using a play-based approach, we encourage children to interact with foods in ways they are comfortable with while simultaneously starting to push their limits and expand their diet.