Why is variety important?
- When you serve your child a limited number of dishes , you are giving them a message that unfamiliar foods are to be feared and are 'not for them'. Providing variety diminishes anxiety about new and disliked foods.
- If a child can get used to often having unfamiliar or disliked foods around, they are getting the valuable exposures they will need to bring them closer to accepting these foods.
- Research shows that the most limiting factor when it comes to children's food preferences is unfamiliarity due to a child never having been offered a food.
Some very anxious eaters will find it almost impossible even to be in the same room as a non-accepted food. If this is your child, you might be reading this and wondering how you could ever expose them to a wide range of foods in a way that they could tolerate. Don’t worry - I am going to share some simple strategies for bringing more variety into your child’s food-world in a way that is right for them, wherever they are on their eating journey.
The child who has a good relationship with food
If your child enjoys a varied diet, there is still lots you can do to support and nurture their relationship with food. Introduce ‘Try it Tuesdays’ where you experiment with one new food each week. You could also have your child plan one meal each week (as they get older they can prepare it too), the only rule being that it can’t be a meal they have already chosen that year. Explore world cuisines: visit foreign grocery shops and occasionally eat at restaurants and cafes from other cultures if this is within your budget. Modelling is so important - if they see you taking a joyful and open-minded approach to eating, they will follow suit.
The child who is neophobic or just in a bit of a developmentally normal picky phase
If you would describe your child as a bit fussy or picky, but they still eat foods from each food group and have perhaps 30 or more accepted foods, make sure you don’t fall into the trap of just serving the go-to meals you know they’ll eat. Instead, include an accepted food at every meal and snack, alongside new foods and foods which are similar to accepted foods. For example, if they eat pasta, sausages and carrots, have carrot sticks, cheese and crackers for a snack and sausages with a new kind of pasta for dinner. This ‘big picture’ approach to meal planning enables you to relax in the knowledge that they will have plenty of opportunities to eat accepted foods but not at the expense of a varied diet. For these children, I also recommend not serving the same food twice in any three day period. This really forces you to get creative with their accepted foods and to throw away some of the assumptions we make about meals… it really is ok to go European and serve fruit, ham and cheese for breakfast because you are trying not to repeat the cereal they like, for example.
The child who is extremely food-anxious and/or has a diagnosis of ARFID
If your child is in this category, you need to prioritise their sense of safety and make sure that exposing them to a varied diet is not at the expense of their wellbeing. That doesn’t mean that you can’t build their confidence by varying their diet though. But the watchword here is S-L-O-W.
Begin with miniscule changes to accepted foods. And I don’t mean sneaky changes, but changes they will notice and then be okay with. So if they eat toast, cut it into fingers or small squares instead of half-slices. If they eat crisps (chips) try a new brand but the same flavour. It may be hard to perceive the value in these tiny alterations but actually it really empowers children to see they can branch at their own pace.
Another very important way to reduce food anxiety is to expose your child to a wide variety of foods - if this feels okay for them - in a non-eating situation. So perhaps you pick out some fruit at the supermarket and bring it home to draw. Perhaps you make potato prints or make an apple into a face by adding hair and googly eyes! Positive and pressure-free interactions with food are very powerful.
The variety challenge
Wherever your child is at, think about one thing you can do this week to introduce more variety into their diet. Comment below (or share in the facebook group) to let us know what you are planning.