What is Food Jagging?
Food Jagging is when a child wants to eat the same foods, prepared the same way, every day and sometimes even every meal. When a child ‘jags’ on a particular food, it is likely that they will eventually tire of that food and eliminate it entirely from their diet. While eliminating a few foods from a diet may not be a significant concern, if a child is allowed to food jag for an extended period of time, they significantly limit the amount of foods in their food repertoire. Unlike jagging, some children will go through phrases of picky eating, which can be a part of typical development. Children who are picky eaters may tire of favorite foods for a few weeks, but after 2-3 weeks, picky eaters will add that food back into their repertoire instead of eliminating food entirely. Per the SOS (Sequential – Oral – Sensory) Approach to Feeding (K. Toomey), children should have at least 30 different foods they will accept the majority of meals and snacks (3 different foods at 5 meals, 3 meals + 2 snacks, across 2 days). This amount of accepted food is important for a child’s nutrition and overall development. A child who food jags may be an appropriate weight, or they may be over/under weight depending upon the food types they are ‘jagging’ on.
Who is at Risk for Food Jagging?
Any child can food jag, although children with feeding difficulties are at a higher risk for food jagging. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders are also more likely to food jag if allowed. Children with ASD typically have sensory integration issues. As a result, children on the spectrum frequently prefer to food jag to decrease stress to their sensory systems. If a child with ASD eats the same few foods, presented the same way across every meal, he does not have to process any new sensory information before or during mealtimes. These children also tend to jag on prepackaged and processed food, because even the packaging looks the same each time.
What Can Parents Do to Prevent Food Jags?
Offer a variety of food across all meals. As easy as it may be to offer yogurt or goldfish for each snack or leftovers from the previous meal, find a way to vary snacks and meals. The more foods a child is offered and the frequency a particular food is offered provides more opportunities for a child to expand their food repertoire. Allowing a child to assist in grocery shopping and mealtime prep is a good way to expose a child to new foods without pressuring them to eat it. Also offering reasonable portion sizes of less familiar foods will reduce the risk of a child become overwhelmed by the new food. Toomey recommends offering any particular food only every other day to prevent the promotion of food jags.
If your child is already beginning to food jag and permanently eliminating once preferred foods from their diet, there are strategies you can implement to help them become more flexible and accepting eaters. Toomey recommends selecting the child’s least nutritional item they are jagging on (for practice and in case they end of dropping food permanently). Once the least nutritious food is selected, begin SLIGHTLY changing features of the preferred food. Changes must be noticeable so the child is aware of the change, but so subtle that the child still accepts the food.
Changing the shape is usually the easiest change to a food for a child to process. You can change shape by making pasta with a different shaped noodle, using cookie cutters to alter pancakes or sandwiches, or buying dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets instead of buying the regular nuggets. After the child can tolerate a shape change, alter the color. Food colorings are a great way to change the color of any preferred food. Some prepackaged foods also come in a variety of colors. Following change in color, alter the flavor. You can use a variety of syrups, cheeses, spices or sauces to slightly change any flavor. Usually the last component of a preferred food that should be changed is the texture. Texture is usually the most difficult change to process, and this is why it is the last change to occur to a preferred food. Another way to alter preferred foods is changing the temperature at which the food is served.
It is important to remember that a child should be able to tolerate each change across MULTIPLE presentations prior to altering another characteristic of the preferred food. Just because a child tolerates their sandwich in the shape of a heart one day does not mean they are ready to have the color of their favorite sandwich altered. If too many foods are changed at once or if things are changed too quickly, a child is likely to not eat and automatically drop the once preferred food. If a child has a meltdown when they notice the change to their preferred food, too much was changed.
Speech & Occupational Therapy of North Texas has speech pathologists trained to work with feeding challenges. For families in Frisco, feeding therapy is available at our Frisco location. In Murphy, feeding therapy in available at our East Plano location. To speak with a therapist regarding your child, please contact us at 972-424-0148. Feeding therapy is often covered by health insurance.
Danielle Muntean, MS, CCC/SLP, author of this article, is a speech-language pathologist in our Frisco clinic who specializes in feeding challenges.