Introducing variety in the toddler years
In an ideal world, our toddlers’ development would be supported by a meal variety that included chicken for lean protein, fish for fatty acids, and lean beef for iron. Five fruits and vegetables would be tried every day, and each serving would be a different colour for different vitamins and minerals. We would have legumes for fibre and yoghurt for probiotics, and various wholegrains for sustainable energy. Of course, this can seem like a pipe dream to most parents who are struggling to get their toddler to simply try brown bread instead of white in their third sandwich of the day!
Firstly, take away the negativity. Coercion, bribing, threats, begging or pleading are proven ways to worsen picky eaters. Stick a smile on your face, even if you feel like weeping, and concentrate on providing a supportive and pleasant environment to create happy memories with food.
Don’t be afraid of re-introducing foods several times over. Research shows that it introducing a food up to 15 times may be necessary in toddlers – remember, providing pressure to eat is counterproductive, so provide in a neutral way if you can. Familiarity is essential for these little ones – if they are used to seeing a food on their plate, or on someone else’s plate, or even if they see it being prepared often, it will improve its familiarity and the chances of them eating it eventually. Try creative ways of incorporating these foods into their lives – read them pictures books about different foods, have posters in their rooms with different foods, or get them involved in gardening or mixing food in the kitchen. Keeping them away from the new foods can only make things worse.
Try to increase exposure by food chaining. Identify the foods that your toddler does feel comfortable with – even if it’s only strawberry yoghurt and white bread with butter. Identify the textures, colours, flavours and temperatures that they are comfortable with. Then start to work with these limitations by introducing other foods that are similar but slightly different. Try small amounts of different flavoured yoghurt other than strawberry, for example, and once that is accepted, try yoghurt with some texture, such as fruit pieces. The next step could be adding in your own fruit pieces into yoghurt, and then some seeds. Try replacing the butter on the white bread with cream cheese, or mild-tasting macadamia nut butter, or trying butter on a light brown bread or even just toasted white bread. By slowly expanding the tastes and textures that are accepted, you will train your little one to feel safer around new foods and soon have them comfortable with variety.
Lastly, don’t forget the importance of modelling. If mom, dad, and as many siblings as possible show comfort and acceptance of a wide variety of foods (which is healthier for everyone), then your tot will ultimately learn from role models that all foods are safe and enjoyable.