When it comes to food I’m kind of a variety addict. If it wasn’t for the wonderful ideas I find all over the internet, I’d be a very unhappy cook. Because I don’t particularly enjoy cooking — it’s the eating I’m after. Cooking and eating the same thing bores me. But having a new recipe to try helps me power through the required ingredient prep for the tasty prize at the end.
This is not a bad thing. Most health professionals (me included) will agree that dietary variety is a good thing because it increases a diet’s overall nutritional quality. It’s also well-accepted that exposing children to a variety of foods helps them learn to like a variety of foods. Conversely feeding kids only their favorites may limit their taste preference development.
Last year I wrote about presenting vegetables in a variety of ways to increase their acceptance. I still think it’s a good idea. And yet I think about the positive aspects to how I was fed and how other cultures have been feeding kids for generations. It makes me wonder why we’ve made it out to be so hard today*. I can’t imagine my grandmother wringing her hands over how she should present carrots to be sure I’ve experienced all their nuances. Do we really have to treat feeding kids the way Kindergarten teachers treat reading? With lesson plans, activities, calendars and crafts? Do we need to keep track of each food group and how many times we’ve served strawberries vs. peaches, dinner rolls vs. whole grain toast? Do we need an app for it?
What does aiming for variety mean exactly when it comes to feeding our kids?
My own Romanian upbringing suggests that we don’t need to have 30 new recipes to try out every month. I’m pretty sure my mom cooked from a small collection of common favorites that we all got used to and learned to love, with some occasional ‘new’ thing tossed in when my mom felt inspired. My mom also cooked in large batches. This meant we were eating the same two or three dishes all week. I didn’t even know the word ‘leftovers’ until well into grade school when the novels I read mentioned the term as though it was a bad thing.
And bread. Oh. The. Bread. Usually homemade and served with just about everything.
So whenever I feel overwhelmed by the search for variety (ingrained thanks to my dietetics training), I think back to the food selection we grew up with and can relax.
My self-imposed pressure to constantly put a smorgasbord of variety on the table for the sake of educating my children about food has decreased. Instead, I let my personal desire for variety drive my meal planning. As the main cook, I have to make the job rewarding enough to keep doing it. So if I’m bored, I seek out new recipes or try meals I’ve not prepared in a long time. Half the time I wing it based on what ingredients I happen to have. And I don’t sweat the fact that I served veggie burgers twice in one week. But I do notice the repeat or if we’ve been using certain produce over and over and it spurs me on to expand my menu.
You can’t assume that your kids don’t like carrots if they’ve only had them one way. But you also can’t say they don’t like them if you are so committed to variety that they only see them rarely because you’ve committed to serving a new vegetable every single day for a month. You’ve got to find that balance between repeated exposure to a food and not serving the same breakfast day in and day out.
For me, what it comes down to is this: Enough variety so that I don’t feel stuck in a rut and my children don’t automatically view “new” as “scary.” We have favorites that we use regularly and they have a chance to learn to like and look back on fondly. That’s hard to do if I’m cooking a brand new dish every day. But they also are accustomed to having unfamiliar foods on the table. What matters most is that my kids have a positive attitude toward food/eating in general and develop eating competence.
What about you? How do you navigate the aim for variety without feeling overwhelmed?
(* I just want to add a disclaimer. There are some children with sensory or medical issues or other significant feeding issues that really do need therapeutic help for themselves or their caregivers beyond just “put food on the table.” But I’m directing this post to the parents of typical kids who eat in typical kid ways)