Blast from the Past: 8 Tips to Increase Variety and Decrease Selective Eating

My oldest son, Bobby, and my youngest son, Billy, have thankfully made another step in the right direction of eating all food in moderation. As many of you know, my children, once adventurous eaters (well, at least Bobby was), have limited their variety more and more over the years.

Despite my nutrition background, I have internally struggled at times with my children’s restricted dietary intake and aversion to foods with different colors and textures. What we sometimes have to remind ourselves of is that kids’ habits, like those of their parents, are ever changing. Kids get tired of eating the same old foods over and over again, and just as current favorites fade, old favorites resume as well.

One of the best ways to increase the variety of foods your children eat and decrease selective eating is to reintroduce those former menu staples.

As time passes, I have realized that the apples don’t fall far from this tree. I too was a picky eater growing up and always fell on the lower end of the growth chart, sometimes nearly falling off altogether. Once, my parents even sent me to a doctor because all I would eat was macaroni with cheese or butter for 2 years straight. I couldn’t be convinced to eat a substantial amount of food either, and would say that I was full from half an apple. And, I really was.

For many different reasons—such as exposure to new foods and produce throughout my childhood and teenage years (I even experimented with vegetarianism and veganism)—I eventually figured out how to eat the right amount for me while incorporating a huge variety of ingredients and flavors. As I continue to observe my own children’s eating habits, I feel increasingly confident that, as time goes on, they too will acquire a new appreciation for texture, temperature, color, and quality. (I say quality because, I must admit, I have a penchant for fine ingredients, whether broccoli or a burger.)

So that brings me to the latest update on the home front. At one point, Bobby was happy eating pasta and spinach mixed up with feta or Parmesan cheese and a side of eggs. Then, he got “tired” of those flavors.

Recently, while sitting at dinner with my boys, Bobby said to me, “You know, I would eat the white part of the egg but not the yellow. I don’t like the yellow.” Of course, I had tried to just make him egg whites before; that’s all he ate for some time. But instead of reminding him of this, I said, “Okay, good to know.”

The next night for dinner, I made Bobby his usual whole-wheat mac and cheese with spinach and a side of applesauce (or apple slices). I also included a side of 2 egg whites, cooked without any flaws in the texture. And, well, he ate it up!

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I can now officially say that Bobby’s dinner actually consists of a grain, a fruit, a veggie, a dairy and not 1 protein but 2! Now, this does not necessarily mean that Bobby is ready to eat a salad or dine at a fine restaurant. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. But he is most definitely reincorporating former staples into his diet. Knowing that I changed, and that Bobby’s habits are changing as well, gives me joy, and I am loving every minute of observing this process.

This also gives me hope for Billy, who still refuses to eat basic dishes like pasta. I am happy to announce that, when looking in the freezer recently, I noticed a box of Dr. Praeger’s fish sticks. Billy used to gobble these up. Knowing that reintroducing certain foods, even after a hiatus, can be effective, I decided to serve some warm fish sticks to both boys the other evening for dinner. As it turns out, the timing was right, and Billy ate all of the fish sticks alongside his normal favorites of hummus, mango, cheese and Ak-Mak crackers. He has been happily eating the fish sticks for the past week now, and even declared, “I like fish!” Of course, this bout may end soon, but that’s par for the course.

Oddly enough, while away over Memorial Day weekend, a guest at my friend’s house commented on my children’s healthy eating behaviors. This baffled me, as I typically hear how my kids are picky, but this person realized that, while their choices are limited, their intake is generally healthy. If nothing else, I’ve at least managed to successfully inspire them to choose nutritious options most of the time. And if that’s the case, I’ll take what I can get for the time being.


Want to expand your child’s food repertoire? Here are a few tricks that have helped me through the years.

  1. Don’t forget that eating habits are always evolving. Think about your personal habits in the kitchen and when out to dinner, and how this affects your own children’s choices and habits.
  2. Talk with your children while they eat dinner. You may learn something about their likes and dislikes.
  3. Ask your children what they like to eat. It may surprise you what they come up with!
  4. Make your children the foods they request, so that they feel as though you’re heeding their wishes. Then, they may be more likely to comply with yours!
  5. Let your children observe you eating a range of foods to help pique their interest.
  6. Be patient, and don’t force feed.
  7. Reintroduce former favorites and new foods with something you know they like to ease the process along.
  8. Most importantly, reintroduce old favorites and former staples on a regular basis. What they loved yesterday might be off limits tomorrow, and what’s off limits tomorrow might be their future favorite!

How This Mom Does It: Guest Blog Post By Suzanne Quint

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This week guest blogger Suzanne Quint discusses parenting books, and incorporating your culture into teaching children healthy eating habits.

I am a mom of 5 year old twins whom I am proud to count as good (but of course not always great) eaters. Being of Greek descent (read: food is everything), it was really important to me that my kids be good eaters.  I couldn’t imagine going through life with them with a rotation of chicken fingers and hot dogs.  So, upon the recommendation of my friend Kate, I followed Ellyn Satter’s Child of Mine book pretty religiously.  It was in fact, the only child development book, on any subject, I read.  I cannot recommend this book enough as a foundation and constant reinforcer for those formative early years.  Satter’s premise, in a nutshell, is that as parents we are in charge of what the kids eat and when – and that the kids are in charge of how much they eat.  She also incorporates the idea of having (some!) choice for your kids – so broccoli and cauliflower at the table, for example, and empower them to pick which they want.   As with most things in parenting, the key was consistency and perseverance, which at times was doubly hard with twins.   I’ll say that while we thought early on that my son was a picky eater and my daughter had the Greek-eating gene, he has really turned it around.  In hindsight, he was more stubborn (and still likes to make a big fuss here and there) but our perseverance on always presenting him with real food choices has paid off.  They don’t like everything but we don’t cater to them at mealtime either.  Some things they enjoy– spanakopita (or “spinach triangles” as we call them)– Trader Joe’s sells delicious and affordable one’s and FreshDirect has them too.  And if we order pizza, I balance this meal with telling them it has to have broccoli or spinach on it (their choice).

The Hamburger Bun (minus the hamburger)

They boys absolutely love to go food shopping with me. So when it’s time to restock the kitchen, Billy and Bobby hop into the double stroller, and the three of us take a nice long walk to the Whole Foods in Tribeca (my favorite of their Manhattan locations).

It’s not just the boys who benefit from our little shopping excursions either; I love sharing this experience too, since it gives them the opportunity to pick out all their favorite foods while getting a taste for all the beautiful fruits and veggies on display. Quirky fun fact: They also love checking out ostrich and emu eggs.

While perusing the supermarket aisles, the boys usually grab household staples off the shelves like Kashi Heart to Heart, Laughing Cow cheese and hummus. But on our last trip, Bobby decided to pull one out of left field and toss hamburgers buns into the cart. Hamburger buns?

Of course, my gut reaction was, “Ugh, why can’t my kids try a fruit or vegetable instead of another form of bread?” It wasn’t long before I came to my senses though, and thought, “Well, why not?”

I asked Bobby what he would use the rolls for (considering he doesn’t eat hamburgers), to which he innocently replied, “peanut butter.” Case closed. We bought them.

That night, I decided to take advantage of the rolls to whip up a “grilled chicken sandwich”—a hearty and wholesome meal I knew Bobby would enjoy. (I also knew getting him to try it would be a challenge. More on that to come.)

To create my masterful meal, I simply placed Bell & Evans breaded chicken tenders between the whole-wheat buns and slathered on some ketchup. As predicted, Bobby protested, screaming that he didn’t like it even though he hadn’t taken a bite yet.

Standing in the dining room, Bobby glared at the sandwich as if it were crawling with bugs. “You like all of these foods individually,” I told him. “Just try it.” It’s true; Bobby likes chicken and ketchup and bread. The idea that he could be so repulsed by the combination of all three ingredients was not beyond comprehension.

It wasn’t easy, but after a bit of gentle encouragement, I saw Bobby out of the corner of my eye as he walked over to the once disgusting sandwich and took a bite. And you know what? He did like it! In fact, Bobby liked the sandwich so much that he grabbed the remains and brought it with him into the living room, chomping away while watching TV.

Like I’ve said before, I’m by no means perfect. But on that fateful evening, Bobby and I actually accomplished something: he tried—and approved of—a new combination of food. It was a triumph in my mind.

Would I have preferred if he ate his chicken sandwich in the kitchen, at a table, near a napkin and while my husband and I, instead of staring at the TV? Yes. But sometimes, especially when dealing with a fussy eater, you have to pick your battles.

Do your kids claim to hate foods before trying them? How did you coax them into taking a bite?