The importance of variety
Infant and toddler years are intense periods of growth, development and learning. For this to take place optimally, these little people require a boggling array of nutrients. 22 amino acids are needed for tissue growth, DNA and immunity. Tens of trace elements support development of everything from blood to brains to bones. Fatty acids are necessary for hormones, nerves, skin, and in fact all cells of the body. The many vitamins have functions ranging from supporting the immune system to developing eye health. Phytonutrients, fibre, probiotics… The range of nutrients that our children need can be overwhelming. The bad news is; no single food can provide everything our toddlers need. The good news is; all these nutrients can be easily supplied by a diet with variety, without having to supplement with a collection of pills and tablets. Variety means choosing different foods from each food group (starches, meats, fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, and dairy) on different days.
Establishing variety in a toddler’s diet has another, more subtle benefit: Exposing your child to as many foods as possible can help prevent picky eaters and food neophobia (fear of new foods). Helping your child become familiar with a wide range of tastes, textures and colours in their food, especially in the first 6-12 months of eating, is the most effective way to get them to feel comfortable and safe with variety and new foods.
Toddlers, neophobia and picky eating
Unfortunately, between 1-3 years of age, toddlers tend to go through a period of picky eating and refusal to try anything unfamiliar. While this can drive you up the wall, rest assured that it is a normal, transient phase that most kids go through. Your toddler is learning independence – she can move around unaided, he can finally vocalise his thoughts – and using food to declare that independence is natural. Believe it or not, it can be a safety mechanism - as your little one learns to wander around the house and garden, it is preferable to have them fear new foods and tastes, rather to have them try out new snacks such as laundry detergent or dead cockroaches! Besides the natural propensity to food refusal, many factors can enhance picky eating in this life stage – exploring tots tend to have limited meal time structure and “graze” snacks throughout the day, resulting in reduced appetite for mealtimes. Developing little brains can be easily distracted, and a day spent exploring can exhaust them, making meal times an unpleasant chore.
Unfortunately, in this natural phase of picky eating, parents can react in ways that actually enhance the behaviour and turn it into a chronic problem. In particular, parents may give up entirely on introducing variety, which, as discussed, can only make the problem worse. We become tense and upset at the food refusal, or worse, become coercive and apply pressure to eat. Children pick up on this negativity and associate it with food, especially new foods – and this negative association with meal times exacerbates the problem, potentially for years to come.