“Is it okay if my kid eats the same thing every day??”
When you have a picky eater, it can become a battle to get them to branch out. And no one has the energy to battle over every meal! So it’s very common to fall into the habit of serving the same things day in and day out.
Or, maybe you’re trying to serve them other foods, but they absolutely refuse!
Chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, and milk are some of the most common ‘hang-up foods’ kids get stuck on.
None of these foods in and of themselves are “bad.” (If you know me, you know I won’t say any foods are “bad”!) But you may worry about the lack of variety in your child’s diet and what consequences may arise.
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You’re not alone
This is, fortunately and unfortunately, a really common problem. When looking at the research available, up to 50% of children are described as picky eaters! That should give you some solidarity to know you’re definitely not alone.
As much as I want to say, “it’s fine, don’t worry about it,” the reality is that we want to encourage variety for numerous reasons. Long-term lack of variety in the diet CAN lead to some deficiencies. Variety is the best way to ensure that your child is covering their nutritional bases.
This doesn’t mean they need to willingly eat 10 different vegetables and 10 different fruits every week. It just means that, ideally, they will eat a few options from each food group.
In this post, you’ll learn specific strategies parents can implement to encourage kids to eat more variety and not get stuck on the same few foods.
I also want to mention here that I have several picky eating resources available on topics similar to this!
If you’re struggling with a picky eater and are ready to make a big change? My online course, Simple Steps to Picky Wins, is for you. I’ve heard from so many shocked parents who have taken the course and actually see their kid expand their diet. It feels like magic when you experience it for yourself!
I also wrote another blog post recently on how to introduce a new food to your picky eater. It goes very in-depth on what to do with each new food (including examples).
Why do kids resist different foods?
It’s common, especially for kids ages 2-5, to demand the same foods all the time. These “food jags” or hang-ups are expected for picky eaters and even for non-picky eaters in toddlerhood and early childhood.
Kids- especially picky eaters- can be resistant to trying new foods for a few common reasons. First of all, kids can often be resistant to new experiences in general.
They thrive on routine and knowing what to expect. Routine feels safe. And if you think about it, that makes sense! Every experience they’ve had in their short little lives has been new, and that can be a lot to handle!
The familiarity of the same foods can feel safe and comfortable. So it’s understandable why a lot of kids get stuck on the same few things. Not saying it’s not frustrating, though!
There is also a genetic/temperament component that can play a role here. Certain kids are, by nature, more sensory seeking and open to new experiences, and others are less-so. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Some kids want to dive head first into new things, and others are more cautious and observant. Often I see that picky eaters tend to have a temperament that is more cautious and observant. Or at least the type less likely to seek out brand new experiences on their own.
Resistance can also be related to taste and texture. For example, vegetables are often not universally loved by children. (Okay, that’s an understatement.) Why?
Well, most vegetables have a taste profile that we categorize as “astringent,” which pretty much means bitter. Bitter things can be off-putting to all of us, especially children, who have a predisposition to prefer sweeter foods.
Texture can also really throw kids for a loop. Meat is a common childhood aversion because of the endless varieties/preparations/textures they might experience from meat. One bite of chicken might be tender and one might be chewy. Not knowing what to expect from a food can make a child less likely to want to try it.
What do you do if they eat the same thing every day?
I look at this in terms of triage. So the first, most important goal, is making sure your child is eating enough. They need plenty of energy (calories) to help them grow and develop appropriately. So ensuring your child is eating is #1- even if that means the same foods day after day.
Wherever your starting place is, that’s OKAY! It’s normal to feel upset with yourself and/or your child if their diet is REALLY limited. But I promise it doesn’t have to stay that way forever.
Adding some more variety is your next goal, when you feel ready to tackle it. Let’s talk about what tools you have to help you do that! (Again, for a guided step by step process with more resources, you’ll want my course, Simple Steps to Picky Wins. But I will give an overview of some tools here in this post!)
Get clear on your starting place
Make a list of your child’s safe foods to clearly see what you’re working with. Safe foods are the foods they regularly eat and like. Rotate those safe foods as much as you can to start.
Consider a multivitamin or other supplements
You may also consider using a multivitamin. Renzo’s is one of my favorites for picky eaters. (As a reminder, consult with your pediatrician or a Registered Dietitian before starting supplements. They can help you determine if this step is necessary.)
Most kids, and even most picky eaters, don’t need a multivitamin. That’s because it’s usually fairly easy to get the vitamins and minerals that are included in multivitamins.
That’s not to say that they aren’t indicated in some situations. But there’s also a lot of great marketing around products that may or may not be necessary! Here is a post I wrote outlining some of the nutrient needs for children and how they can be met through the diet. Often the nutrients that kids are deficient in – like iron – are not even in most multivitamins.
We do want to be mindful of what they could be missing so that we can keep any eye out for any potential deficiencies. The more common deficiencies we see are fiber, calcium, iron, and certain other vitamins/minerals. Parents often worry their children aren’t getting enough protein, but this is actually not very common as their protein needs are relatively easy to meet.
Do you think your child is missing something in their diet? You can also do a virtual consultation with a Mama Knows Nutrition dietitian – book a consult here.
Add, don’t subtract
I touched on this in the introduction to this post, but variety is really our long-term goal here.
1- variety helps kids cover all their nutritional bases. And 2- accepting variety fosters an important skill: greater acceptance/tolerance to new (or previously unliked) things and experiences. Flexing this muscle empowers kids to see that new or different isn’t always bad or scary. That will serve them well in so many areas of life.
I cite the rule of thumb I like to call ‘eating the rainbow’- which is exactly what it sounds like. Different colored foods offer different nutrients. Eating a variety of colors usually means you’re getting a good variety of nutrients.
I also like to keep in mind the macronutrients- carbohydrates, protein, and fat- when building a meal for my children. If I can get those items represented on their plates (even if that’s in the same mixed dish),and add a fruit/veggie for added color/fiber, I feel pretty good about that.
These little mental rules of thumb can prevent them from getting too much from one food group. For most kids, that ends up being carbs!
But you don’t have to take AWAY the foods they love and prefer. Add new things, serve some of their favorites less often. You don’t have to limit their portions or do anything strict.
This adding-in mentality also goes hand in hand with creating a healthy relationship with food. It avoids sending our kids any messages that certain foods are “bad” or need to be off-limits.
I’d rather have you let them eat the same thing while you work on strategies to slowly add things in than freak out and make them a plate full of veggies that you know they’re not going to eat a single bite of.
That will only get you into a meal-time power struggle, which I’m guessing we’ve all tried by now!
Brand new meals never go over well, forcing them to take bites never works, bargaining with them never works, withholding desserts never works.
So what does work, Kacie!?
Increasing tolerance to change is the first level goal here.
If your child can’t even tolerate the sight or presence of a new or unliked food on/near their plate, then we’re first going to work on that. Starting small and slow really is the key, even if it hurts you to start with such a small change!
First, we want to start at home, in their environment, where they’re most comfortable.
Don’t pack a bunch of new foods in their lunchbox and expect that they’ll try them at daycare or in a crowded cafeteria. That will likely be overwhelming for picky eaters; and remember, there IS a big emotional component that plays into this.
Secondly, we want to start with some nearly imperceptible changes. Starting SMALL, right?
Here are my two rules of thumb:
- The “change one thing” rule: make a goal to change one thing from how you would typically serve a meal. Start with appearance.
First, present the same food differently – use a different plate, cut it in a different size or shape, etc.
Then, you can gradually work toward changing the food itself or the side dish you serve with it.
If it’s always a combination of chicken nuggets and french fries that your child expects, try swapping out the fries for a different side.
Also, making the food look “visually appealing” can also go a long way here, too. I like to use fun mealtime items like these food picks and these shape cutters to make the presentation cute and enticing for picky eaters!
- The “every other day” rule: alternate their meals so they skip one day. By doing this, you instantly double their variety.
If Cheerios is what they have for breakfast every day, the “every other day” rule means you’ll serve another breakfast to alternate with Cheerios to naturally offer more variety. So it could be as basic as Cheerios on Sun, Tues, Thurs, etc. and then toast on Mon, Wed, Fri.
My free Breakfast Menu Card PDF makes this easy to implement!
All exposures count
Keep in mind that progress might feel really slow and take many repetitions, especially at the beginning. If your child is accustomed to seeing the same meal time after time, definitely expect some resistance.
That’s why the small, almost imperceptible changes are the key at first. Even without knowing it, they’re slowly flexing that muscle of learning to increase tolerance.
All exposures count! Even if they don’t touch it or interact with a food at all, that is still an exposure and that is still progress!
Fruit vs. vegetables
If you’re like “Kacie, my kid won’t TOUCH a vegetable! We are lightyears away from that.” Don’t worry. Some great news I love to give parents is that fruit has largely the same micronutrients as vegetables, and fruit is much more widely accepted by kids (hello sweet vs. bitter)!
You can even try dried fruit, frozen fruit, freeze-dried fruit, or fruit blended up into smoothies or homemade popsicles if you think you’ll have more success that way.
Be wary of too much dairy
Dairy can be an incredible way to cover some nutritional needs. But we also don’t want to overdo it on dairy. Too much dairy can lead to constipation, and it can also crowd out other nutrients.
I recommend 16-20 oz (around 2 to 2.5 cups per day) of milk for toddlers, and no more than 3-4 servings a day.
Get them involved
Picky eaters can be way more likely to try something if they have some personal buy-in. One way to increase this buy-in is to get them involved in all stages of the meal planning process. They can help come up with meal and snack ideas, go to the grocery store with you, meal prep and cook, and serve it themselves!
These breakfast cards are one great way to get your kid involved in the decision making process and make them more likely to be interested in the final product!
Tips and tricks to boost nutrition and increase variety
Here’s a list of some of my favorite (easy!) foods/ways to boost nutrition in the foods your child may already eat:
- Hemp/chia/flax seeds– add these to toast, oatmeal, or smoothies if your child can handle a little extra texture)
- Smoothies- you can pack a bunch of nutrition into smoothies- sometimes even vegetables
- Cook with bone broth- check out this bone broth video post where I touch on how you can up the protein and nutrient content of some common kids favorites like noodles or rice! My personal favorite is Kettle & Fire brand!
- Mix it up- I love this tip: if your child likes a certain cereal or yogurt that’s loaded with sugar, try serving it with a little bit of another kind mixed in (i.e. Honey Nut Cheerios with regular cheerios, or a strawberry flavored yogurt with a dollop of plain Greek yogurt
The bottom line on picky eating
Keep in mind our goals: increased tolerance for change, a longer list of safe foods, greater variety in the diet, and a healthy relationship to food. Those are the things we want to keep in mind when we’re in the really frustrating trenches of picky eating.
And ultimately, the truth is: it is their job to decide what to put in their body. It is your job as the parent to support them, offer them variety, and give them guidance. But it’s their job to decide what to eat! Take some of the pressure off of yourself, use some of these strategies I mentioned here. And if you want some extra support, check out my Simple Steps to Picky Wins course!
If you could use a hand with the planning portion of meals and snacks, I also encourage you to check out my Meal and Snack Survival Guide. I created it with picky eaters and their families in mind. It’s full of simple, tried and true meal and snack ideas that makes feeding your family day after day feel like less of a chore!