Food Jag

Anna Baker M.A., OTR/L BCP SIPT
Anna Baker M.A., OTR/L BCP SIPT

LKS & Associates
Occupational Therapist

How Do I Know If My Child Has a Food Jag?

Imagine your favorite food in front of you at the end of a long and difficult day.  For an adult, this food may be spinach lasagna, your spicy chicken quinoa rice bowl, or your favorite sushi.  You have the opportunity to eat and enjoy your food at dinner.  It tasted amazing.  The next day at dinner, you have leftovers and it’s not quite as exciting to eat it again.  Then comes dinner with friends the next day and your friends have very thoughtfully brought over your favorite food.  There it is, the same food, for the third time, three days in a row.  Would you be ready for a change?  What would you do?

It’s very likely that in this case, when eating is a social event with friends, you may eat a few pieces of the food that your friends brought for dinner and then make something afterward when your friends are no longer present.  But what about that leftover sushi or spicy chicken rice bowl?  How long until you would like to eat that same item again?  Would it be two weeks? Would it be a month?  Three months?  

Or maybe your family rotated meals each week while you were growing up.  Monday night was grilled chicken night and Tuesday was taco night.  Even then was it typical to eat the same food three or four times in a row when you were growing up?

Typically after that third presentation of the food item, your brain may say “Oh no, not spinach lasagna again,” and you start to look for alternatives.  Why is that?  Eating the same foods each day provides specific nutrition elements that are repeated and may limit the variety of nutrients essential to meet a person’s needs1.  Your brain may be requesting novelty for the purpose of a different nutrition pattern to meet your body’s demands for energy. 

Children who experience food jags may not recognize those signals from the body to eat a variety of foods.  Instead, children who experience food jags may request the same foods repeatedly.  Sometimes, the foods may even be brand-specific and require special preparation such as whole graham crackers (not a single chip or broken piece) from only the Nabisco box and served on the Thomas the Train plate while a favorite YouTube video is playing.  This is referred to as a “food jag”2.  Presenting the same foods in the same way over an extended period of time may result in a food jag.  Over time, that food may eventually reach a full saturation point.  Instead of the child recognizing that third presentation in a row, the child recognizes the 300th presentation in a row and then realizes, “yuck, I don’t want that food again.”  Then, the child may not consume that food again, period.  Alternatively, it may take a couple of months or years before the child can consider that food again.  

For a caregiver of a child experiencing a food jag, this may be devastating because the one food that was consistently consumed is now lost.  The process of starting over with presentations of new foods may result in tantrums, meltdowns, screaming, crying or sometimes aggressive behavior such as kicking, hitting, or biting.  

Why Does This Happen? 

The “why” of food jags can be very confusing.  Sometimes, food jags can happen around the toddler years as part of typical development.  When a toddler first learns the word “no”, the toddler learns that their words can create consequences.  That new word may then carry over to refusals of foods.  It’s also common for toddlers to have a brief fear of new items (“neophobia”), which is typical in development.  But just as tantrums may be a short but typical phase of toddler development, food jags may also be a short but typical phase that benefits from providing choices, setting limitations, and giving positive feedback.

Why do food jags persist?  Food jags can persist for many reasons.  Food jags can be related to concerns with sensory processing, where a child has a significant reaction to food tastes, food textures, and/or food smells.  Food jags can also be related to difficulties with oral motor skill development such as using the jaw muscles properly to break down foods like steak strips or properly use the tongue to push slippery foods like ham onto the chewing surface of the teeth for consistent breakdown. Food jags may also be related to the use of specific routines to decrease stress as when an adult craves comfort food. In a similar way, a child may crave a familiar food but it may become habitual due to a prolonged stress effect.

For prolonged difficulties with food jags, it’s great to speak with your doctor about why this may be occurring.  It may be helpful to speak with a nutritionist regarding alternative strategies to meet dietary needs.  An occupational therapist, speech therapist or other professional trained in sensory and motor-based feeding techniques may also work with a child and caregivers using a variety of techniques such as:

  • One to one sessions following a treatment plan to assess the food jags
  • Consultation with caregivers to change the sensory properties of food items
  • Implementation of self-regulation strategies to assist with new food presentation
  • Home program activities to ensure changes seen in the clinic transition to the home. 

 You can find out more about how to help your child with a “food jag” by contacting the LKS office at 310-739-9337 or by email at scheduling@lksandassociates.com.  

References

1 Rizzo, N. (2018). Ask a nutritionist: Should I eat the same foods each day?  Retrieved 2/22/22 https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/ask-nutritionist-should-i-eat-same-foods-everyday-ncna922956

2 Toomey, K.A. (2002). When children won’t eat: The SOS approach to feeding.   

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