A child I know ate peanut butter sandwiches for lunch every day from kindergarten to year 12. Another insisted on porridge for breakfast, whatever the weather, and the only green vegetable one would eat was frozen peas - still frozen!
Many children like ritual in their meals just as they like order in other aspects of their lives. A seeming lack of variety can be frustrating to parents, but if the foods chosen are basically healthy, as in the examples above, it may not matter. At some stage the natural desire to explore other food choices will usually kick in, often at puberty and sometimes only when their peers or a girl or boyfriend exerts some influence.
A lack of variety is much more of a problem in young children who will only eat Honey Smacks for breakfast, jam sandwiches for lunch and chips for dinner - or similar foods that don't provide the nutrients they need.
One of the dietary guidelines for a healthy diet is eat a variety of nutritious foods. Ideally, this is most likely if a baby is breastfed by a mother who eats a variety of foods. The flavours from the mother's diet come through in the breast milk, and the baby learns from the beginning that flavours vary from day to day.
Once the infant is six months old, eating small amounts of whatever the family is eating then helps educate the palate. This may work most of the time, but there are always exceptions.
All children have more tastebuds than adults (they wear away with age) but some children are classed as super-tasters and detect flavours intensely.
Many of these super-tasters dislike bland foods and prefer interesting flavours. Others turn up their noses at anything with a strong flavour. As toddlers, super-tasters can tell if even a skerrick of some food they dislike, such as onions, has been included in, say, a casserole.
If you have super-tasters in the family, you may need to go along with their dislike of strong flavours or their need for variety. Who knows, they may one day make their living as a wine judges!
Before you get too concerned about a lack of variety in a child's diet, check if your child is choosing something from each of the basic food groups. These are:
Food groups exist because each group contains nutrients not found elsewhere, so it is important to choose something from each group.
Fruit and vegetables were once included in the same food group as they supply similar vitamins, especially beta-carotene and vitamin C. They have now been separated because newly identified antioxidants and various plant chemicals differ between them. So the old idea that children don't need to eat vegetables if they eat fruit is true for vitamins, but not quite correct when you look at the total picture of protective substances.
Some of children's fussiness almost certainly comes from the habit of giving children special foods. In societies where children eat smaller portions of whatever adults eat, problems of rejecting food are much less common.
With their greater ability to taste all food flavours, you may need to avoid chilli, mustard and other hot flavours in children's foods, but wherever possible, accustom them to eating what is available rather than going through a long list of alternatives for each meal or snack.
It also helps if some of the less healthy choices, like sweet biscuits or chips, are not kept in the house but purchased only for parties or special occasions.
If a child is hung up on a particular choice - and it's a healthy food - go along with their choice. If it's an unhealthy food, don't buy the product. There may be a bit of fuss for a day or so, but children will eventually eat whatever is on hand, especially if you only offer them a small portion.
Here are some ideas for introducing variety from among the food groups:
Respect those children who think it's cruel to kill animals for meat. Offer the choice of beans, tofu, peanut butter and eggs instead.
Health warning: Raw and undercooked eggs can pose a risk of Salmonella poisioning for vulnerable sections of the community, including young children. When purchasing and using eggs, store in refrigerator and always check for cracks, any dirt and use-by date. Licking the beaters or spoon from a cake mix (which often contains raw egg) may put your child at risk, particularly during summer months. Other uncooked foods can include mayonnaise, milkshakes, tiramisu and chocolate mousse.
By Rosemary Stanton