Menu shrinkage. the phenomenon whereby parents play it safe and find themselves serving fewer and fewer different meals to their fussy eater. On the one hand, who wouldn't want to keep meals conflict-free and have their children eating happily? On the other hand, it's a case of prioritising a short term win over long term gain.
Many families of picky eaters serve their children three or maybe four meals on rotation. Playing it safe like this is an really common approach to feeding children, but it makes picky eating worse for several reasons:
Children and adults are eating different food
If you are only serving your children a few dishes, this usually means that they are eating separate meals from parents as most adults prefer a little more variety in their food. I advise families to eat the same food, even if circumstances make it impossible to always eat at the same time. This is because research shows that the biggest predictor of whether a child will accept a new food is if they have seen their parents eating it.
Modelling is an incredibly powerful way of encouraging children to eat well - if they never see you eating vegetables, it's a lot to expect them to try some. If they grow up watching the adults around them enjoying a varied and healthy diet, even if they are fussy as children, this will have a powerful influence on the eating 'blueprint' that is being set down in their psyche and will probably have implications for how they eat in adulthood.
If they aren't offered it, they won't try it
For a child to try a food that is not put in front of them is a logical impossibility. The research into the number of exposures that children need before they will accept a new food is well known and studies variously put the number at between 10 and 15. Zero exposures equals zero opportunities to come a step closer to liking something.
Keeping meal choices 'safe' makes new things feel 'dangerous'
Every time you fall back on a tried and tested menu, you are reinforcing the idea that these foods are familiar and to be trusted and everything else is not. I find it very useful to use CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) as an illustration of this point.
CBT is a commonly used evidence-based therapeutic approach; one of the fundamentals of CBT is the idea that, if a person is scared of something and avoids the source of the fear, the anxiety gets worse. However, each time they confront their fear in a manageable way and realise that nothing catastrophic happened, their fear loses a little of its grip on them.
It's exactly the same with food. If you only feed your child a few meals, you are inadvertently making all the other food that they don't experience, feel more threatening.
Shift the goal posts
Much of solving picky eating comes down to re-assessing your objectives. When you feed your child, is your main aim to get as much food down them as possible or to give them a life long positive relationship with food? If it's the former, yes, only serve them the food you know they'll eat. If it's the latter, change your perception of success.
Your picky child just tolerating a disliked food on their plate is a win. Picking it up and sniffing it out of curiosity is a win. Even tasting it then deciding to spit it out (politely of course) is a good thing.
Introduce change gradually
If you feel that you're ready and willing to make a change, here's how to break out of your meal rut: do it one day at a time. You only have three meals on rotation? On day four, introduce something new but similar to the food they are used to. Go through your preferred meals as usual, including the new one, then on day five, bring in something new again.
You are the best judge of how far to challenge your children with new tastes. Take it at a pace that feels manageable. Most importantly, eat the same food yourself so that the concept of special, safe meals is relegated to history and children get used to often being presented with something that is unfamiliar.