Ask a dietitian: Is variety in children’s diets important?

By Rosie Schwartz, RD on September 28, 2015

Question

Is variety in children’s diets important, if their nutritional needs are being met?

Answer

While it’s important for kids to try new foods, sometimes they are more likely to eat when the taste is predictable. That way parents ensure kids are getting enough fuel.

But variety during childhood becomes important later in life. While youngsters often go through food jags, eating mainly one food item for a while, a lack of exposure to various options can see a picky eater grow into an adult with a very limited food repertoire.

Many nutrient-packed options may not seem quite pleasing at first taste but research shows that it can take about 20 attempts (even just a teaspoon) to turn these foods into appealing fare. So if a child is never exposed to various foods, chances are pretty good they won’t have broad palates in adulthood.

Start by encouraging variety within the food groups. If your child loves fruit, for instance (most do), then aim for trying as many fruits as possible. The range of various nutrients and phytochemicals – disease-fighting compounds from plant foods – is astounding.

Even three of the most common fruits hold a wide range of nutritional benefits: Apples are a super source of soluble fibre and a range of heart healthy antioxidants, but they don’t have nearly the amount of Vitamin C as oranges. And the bioflavonoids found in citrus fruits are potent breast cancer fighters. Bananas are an important source of potassium, which helps maintain healthy blood pressure.

Mixing it up when it comes to food preparation also supplies assorted perks. For instance, raw spinach offers triple the amount of vitamin C compared to when cooked. But when you heat spinach, the healthy vision pigment called lutein is better absorbed.

Different preparation methods can also be helpful for picky eaters because sometimes it may be the texture and not the taste that’s off putting. Getting kids involved in preparing healthy eats can help them to identify some of the issues. For example, munching on raw broccoli while trimming it for a stirfry could help get a thumbs up for the vegetable.

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide (Viking Canada). Visit rosieschwartz.com for more.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2015.


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