I wanted to publish this post because, as I wrote recently, most parents want their child to be eating a varied diet - the problem is not that they don't know what varied diet would look like, it is that they are not sure how to make that transition from a limited diet to varied one in a way that works for their child.
Ideally, this needs to be looked at at an individual basis but I am well aware that many people are not easily able to access the support of a feeding consultant, dietitian or other professional. With this in mind, I wanted to put together a simplified version of my approach to helping children accept a wider range of foods.
First, think carefully about whether this expansion of your child's eating repertoire is the right approach for them. It's so important to make sure that you are confident your child does not need specialist help. If you have any doubts about that whatsoever, read my guidance here.
What will your map look like?
This is a huge simplification of the detailed assessment you will get from a competent professional; I hate putting children into boxes and my work is all about seeing every child as an individual with unique needs. This caveat aside, in order to give parents some useable tools, I can't get away from the fact that a little simplification is necessary, so here goes:
Having established that your child is healthy and does not need professional support, see if you can decide which of the following categories they best fit into:
1) Inconsistent picky eater
Your child eats well at some meals but will frequently turn their nose up at what you have served and often leaves some of their meal. However, on some days and in some contexts, they will eat things that they will reject on other days.
Case study: Jenna's mother dreaded mealtimes as she never knew how Jenna was going to react to her food. On some days she would be absolutely fine, on other days, there would be tears and even tantrums at the table. Jenna's mother couldn't understand why she always ate carrots at nursery, but when she was served them at home, Jenna would make a fuss.
2) Limited eater
Your child has a few meals (five - ten) that they will eat and you serve these on rotation. Mealtimes are usually relatively fuss-free as you don't bother serving your child unfamiliar or disliked foods. You worry about social occasions where your child will be faced with foods they may not like.
Case study: Jaden likes pasta - he will eat it with a tomato sauce, with bolognese or as macaroni cheese. He dislikes most meats but will eat a roast dinner with plain chicken breast and roast potatoes and peas. He'll eat chicken nuggets with chips and peas and doesn't mind sausages. Anything else, Jaden will refuse. He has the same sandwiches at school every day, with the same brand of crisps and a yogurt. Jaden's mum had a really hard time trying to persuade Jaden to eat better when he was little. She has two younger children and has decided that it's just too stressful for herself and Jaden to continue battling, so she just serves him the meals he likes.
Moderately picky eater
Your child will sit down to most meals happily. They often leave elements of their meal but basically have a reasonable diet. Because of their cautious reaction to new or unfamilar foods, you tend to eat a much more limited menu than you would like as a family, although not quite as restricted as the 'limited eater' described above. Often, the adults will eat separately because they want to be eating dishes that they think their child will reject. A moderately picky eater will eat bland, familiar food and is generally consistent in their likes and dislikes.
Case study: Caleb's mum was always wary at social occasions because she knew that Caleb's first reaction to new and different foods was usually negative. Caleb moans and complains a lot about what he is served but his mum is used to this and isn't too worried about his diet as it is basically good. He just seems to be naturally cautious around food. Caleb often has seconds of the foods he likes, filling up on these whilst leaving the things he likes less. Caleb's parents are really passionate about good food; they adore cooking and eating out and it makes them sad that Caleb doesn't share their love of eating.
The super-highway to a varied diet: Go cold turkey
If your child is best described as an 'inconsistent' or 'moderate' picky eater, just explain to them in an age-appropriate way, that as a family you are going to be enjoying a more varied diet and that they are welcome to leave whatever they don't like but that there will be no unscheduled snacks or alternatives. Then cook the food you want to be eating. Just that.
I don't want to tell this it will be easy - it won't. It will take a lot of getting used to and your child will almost certainly resist initially as they struggle with the new regime. Be kind and calm and keep re-iterating that you child is free to leave whatever they don't want to eat.
After a few weeks, they will begin to get used to their new, varied diet and all the added exposures to new foods will make them more likely to accept them AND more confident with unfamiliar food. Teaching your child how to leave food politely is a key part of making this work for your family. It's also really useful to engage your child in the planning, shopping and cooking process to gain a bit of 'buy-in'.
The scenic route
If your child is a limited eater, you need to take a softly, softly approach. First, take a piece of paper and write down all the foods your child will eat.
Mix and match
Mix them about a bit, putting elements of accepted meals with other accepted meals. Going back to Jaden, he likes pasta, he likes chicken nuggets and he likes peas - his parents could serve them together even though he normally expects chips with his nuggets.
What your are doing is teaching your child that it isn't catastrophic when they are given meals that are not on their 'safe' list. By initially just using elements that they are used to, you are making this process as non-threatening as possible.
Take it slow
Devise a meal plan for the next fortnight. Make five meals out of seven the ones your child will eat. Make one a 'mixed and matched' meal and one something new. The next fortnight, do another menu plan but this time include two mixed and matched meals and two new meals. The next fortnight, increase the variety even more, including as many mixed and matched meals as you can muster (including new foods that have gone down well on other days), a couple of the new meals from previous weeks plus a couple more completely new meals.
At first, your new meals should be as similar as possible to the meals you know your child likes, with maybe one new element introduced. As the weeks go by, your child's list of accepted food will expand to the point where you can simply serve the food you want to be eating without catering to their preferences. This will take time though, not to mention a lot of perseverance and patience. If your child is not progressing after a few weeks of this approach, it's time to call in specialist help.
In terms of how you talk to your child about what you're doing, keep it minimal. Don't tell them you're giving them something new, just serve every meal in the same calm, fuss-free way. If they are unhappy about the changes, re-iterate that they don't need to eat anything they don't want to.
The pace of change that I have described above is just an example. You know your child and you will be the best person to gauge how slowly or quickly you need to be introducing new meals. Your goal throughout needs to be to keep meals relaxed and positive and minimise the focus on your child's eating.
You can apply the same approach to breakfast, lunch and snacks. Make tiny changes at a pace that your child can cope with. Maybe buy a new brand of bread, a new flavour of crisps from the same manufacturer... the same flavour from a different manufacturer.
Play around, experiment and enjoy the process of your child's eating repertoire expanding. It is so rewarding seeing children slowly learning that they can eat a more varied diet and of course, in the long run, the whole family will benefit.