One of the things I talk about most in my advice around weaning and feeding toddlers is the importance of offering a variety of foods at a young age. Therefore, in this blog I wanted to share a bit more about WHY it’s important to offer variety in the first place and HOW you can add more variety into your child’s diet in a practical way.
Do I need to offer the SAME food for 3 days when starting weaning?
When starting weaning, many parents seem to think that advice is to offer the same food for 3 days in a row before moving on to a different food. Some places around the world do follow this advice, but advice in the UK encourages offering a different foods throughout the weaning journey.
So you can absolutely offer a new food each day from the very start of weaning (as done in my book How to Wean Your Baby).
Offering the same food every day for 3 days can make it incredibly hard to build in variety to their meals. For most foods, there is no reason why you need to offer them over a few days.
However, when introducing the most common allergens, it is best to build up the amount you offer gradually over a few days. Then to wait 2-3 days in between offering new allergens. You can read more about introducing allergens during weaning in my blog.
Shaping future flavour preferences
Research shows that there is a potential “window of opportunity” between around the ages of 6-12 months where babies are more willing to accept new foods. This is why it’s important to try to build in as many new flavours as you can during this time. At the very start of weaning, we’re often not expecting a lot of food to actually get swallowed, but it’s still a great opportunity to expose your little one’s taste buds to new flavours.
By offering more variety whilst your baby is more likely to accept flavours, it also helps to increase their familiarity with more foods and therefore the likelihood that they will continue to accept them as they get older – even as adults. We know that babies have an innate preference for sweet flavours, and so encouraging a liking for more bitter and savoury flavours, including veggies, can sometimes be more challenging. This is one of the reasons why I advocate a veg-led weaning approach for babies.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with giving your baby sweeter tasting foods like fruit or baby rice / porridge. These foods also provide important nutrients and can be part of a balanced diet. However, if these foods are offered too frequently or in place of other varied flavours such as vegetables, meat, pulses or grains, your baby may not get the opportunity to become familiar with and enjoy lots of other flavours too.
More variety = more nutrients
It may seem obvious, but having a more varied diet, also means that your little one is getting a wider variety of nutrients. Different foods offer a range of nutrients, vitamins and minerals and so the more foods your baby or toddler eats, the more likely they are to meet their nutrient requirements.
Whilst it can seem overwhelming to think about all of the different nutrients your child needs in their diet, lots of foods provide a variety of nutrients. For example, the list below shows the range nutrients some of our everyday foods provide:
- Pasta: carbohydrates, fibre (more in wholegrain), B-vitamins, Zinc
- Potatoes: carbohydrates, fibre (with skin), protein, vitamin C
- Dairy and fortified alternatives: protein, fat, iodine, vitamin B12, calcium
- Eggs: Protein, iodine, iron, vitamin B12, selenium, vitamin D
- Fruits and vegetables: vitamin C, B-vitamins, potassium, folate
- Meat and fish: protein, iron, omega-3 fatty acids (oily fish)
- Nut butters: protein, fat, iron, fibre, vitamin E, magnesium, zinc
If you’re worried about whether your toddler is getting enough balance, read more about a balanced diet for toddlers here.
A variety of textures helps development of eating skills
It’s not only flavour variety that children need when starting solid foods. Introducing different textures is also an important aspect of offering your baby variety. As with flavours, children who are exposed to a greater variety of textures when weaning, have been shown to have a more varied diet throughout childhood.
If babies are only given smooth purees for too long, it can make it harder for them to accept other textures, including lumps, mashed or chopped foods. Exposing them to more challenging textures is an important way to help them develop their oral motor skills, including chewing and moving foods around in their mouths.
My blog on moving through textures when weaning can help to introduce different textures in an appropriate way for you and your baby.
Introducing new textures can be quite scary for many parents. Check out gagging and choking during weaning for some advice on how to feel more prepared.
Mealtimes become more enjoyable – for the whole family
Whilst nutrition is an important aspect to consider, it’s not the only reason why variety is helpful for children. Helping children to enjoy a variety of foods means that they can move on to family meals more quickly. This can not only make the job of feeding a family easier, it’s also a lot more enjoyable for everyone involved.
Mealtimes are often such a social part of the day and a time for families to connect. Whether it’s before starting the day with breakfast or at the end of the day with dinner, meals are a wonderful opportunity for children to engage with the rest of the family. And whilst we do want to encourage children to try new foods, often one of the most helpful things you can do is take the pressure off and NOT focus on the food. The mealtime environment for children is equally as important as the food on offer in helping them to enjoy a variety of foods.
Easy ways to add variety to your baby or toddler’s diet:
The idea of providing enough variety can seem quite overwhelming for many parents. It’s definitely not realistic to expect that every meal is going to be perfectly balanced and varied every day of the week. And that’s totally fine!
Offering variety doesn’t have to mean serving something completely new for EVERY meal. Here are some really simple ways to change things up and help to increase the variety your child is getting in their meals:
- Think about BALANCING their plates. Check out my blog on balancing meals for toddlers and also my book How to Wean Your Baby, which includes a list of foods from each food group to help make those meals balanced.
- Change up the shape and type of pasta – if you usually serve penne pasta, try serving bowtie or shell shaped pasta. It may seem simple but even getting your little one used to different varieties of the same food can help to teach them to expect change with food. There are also some fab alternative pastas made with lentils, beans or chickpeas which offer diferent flavours, tastes and colours too!
- Switch up the grains you offer – wholegrain rice, pasta or bread instead of white options can add in variety for babies and toddlers. Or try including other grains like quinoa, buckwheat or pearl barley as alternative carbohydrate sources!
- Use different nut butters in yoghurt / cereal / porridge / toast – this also a great way to keep up the exposure of different nuts, which is important for allergens
- Vary up porridge toppings – porridge is one of my favourite meals for babies and toddlers as it’s easy, nutritious and so versatile, making it a great option for increasing variety. Check out my favourite porridge recipes for babies and toddlers for some inspiration
- Offer different coloured foods. For example, an orange pepper instead of a red pepper or a purple carrot instead of an orange one. Different coloured foods offer a range of nutrients and this can be an easy way to get your little one to become used to foods looking a little different.
- Change the type of sauce you offer. Using different sauces for pasta, rice or potatoes is another way to serve the same foods in new ways and increase variety. See my 10 sauce recipes without tomato for some ideas
- Use different toast toppings when making toast or sandwiches to add variety and get your little one away from only accepting cheese and pickle, for example
- Vary the snacks on offer. It’s so easy to get stuck in a rut with snacks, but they can offer such an easy way to offer lots of nutrients and add in some variety to their day. Check out my snack options for children.
- Fridge Raid – what’s in your fridge and what can you bung together? Sometimes it’s surprisingly easy to balance and offer plenty of variety this way!
- The Importance of offering a variety of foods at a young age, for babies and toddlers is great for many different reasons. Nutrition, enjoyment, acceptance of new foods and development of eating skills.
- Babies are more likely to accept variety than older children. Introducing variety EARLY on, right from the beginning of weaning, can help to increase the variety of accepted foods later on in childhood.
- Increased variety can help move children onto family meals earlier, which is both easier and more enjoyable!
- Offering variety doesn’t have to be complicated. Think new shapes, textures, different sauces or different colours.